When asked what comes to mind when the word “helium” is uttered, everyone I asked had the same answer – balloons, second only to references of the “chipmunk voice” sucking on the gas gives you. Balloons and silly voices are, so far, the two things being hit hardest by the helium shortage. Rhonda Bastolla is the owner of Odd and Unique Furnishings in Homestead, which sells helium balloons.
“It’s really hit us. We used to sell a latex balloon for like 47 cents, which is unheard of, but now we’re up to 89 cents. Average mylars can start at two and a quarter, and the majority of them used to be like 99 cents.”
The problem doesn’t just affect customers though.
“Prices have gone up, the helium tanks are really expensive, and not only are they expensive, but it’s actually hard to get them. So even if you have the money to pay for the tank, you can’t even get it because there’s such a shortage,” said Bastolla.
That’s been hard on local shops like Bastolla’s as well as party stores and florists across the US. But, their uses for helium aren’t considered critical.
The gas is also used in medicine and scientific research. Without helium – technology such as MRI machines wouldn’t work.
“With current technology, they certainly need a coolant and the coolant currently is helium,” said Dr. Keya Hosseinzedah, section chief of Body MRI at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The good news is gas distributors generally give medical users priority. So Hosseinzedah said there has never been a problem getting helium for medical uses.
“I only found out there was a helium shortage when I went to buy balloons for my daughter.”
According to Hosseinzedah newer technology for MRI equipment has improved in recent years, so machines no longer need to be topped off as often as they once had to be.
“We have GE equipment and since 2004 GE has developed this new technology called zero liquid boil-off which means that once the helium is installed within the actual magnet, a very small amount boils off that need to be replenished – it’s recycled within the system itself,” he said.
Helium can also be found in the following:
- LCD screens
- fiber optics
- high-tech computer chips
Its availability isn’t the only hitch for scientists.
“Helium has definitely gotten more expensive, there’s no doubt about it,” said Bill Harbert, geophysicist at the University of Pittsburgh, “myself, in fact, I’ve moved away from liquid helium research and am doing other work in geophysics. No doubt about it, it has introduces a very significant cost threshold to utilizing liquid helium.”
In some cases, the cost of helium has nearly quadrupled, and the price continues to go up.
Harbert says efforts are underway to put into place a helium-recycling program, to cut down on the amount of helium supplies coming into the university.
Origin in Politics
The reason for the shortage is complicated. Helium is a byproduct natural gas extraction. If the gas is not captured during the process, and is released into the air, it is then impossible to recover.
The United States National Helium Reserve, near Amarillo Texas, accounts for about 30 percent of the world’s helium. But the “Helium Privatization Act of 1996” directed the federal government to sell the stores and close the reserve by the end of 2013. Unfortunately the private market didn’t step up as robustly as hoped and the supply continues to dwindle.
“Unless the federal government can come up with a new plan that will replenish the helium, then the alternative is to come up with a new approach, perhaps, to building MRI equipment that uses different types of coils,” said UPMC’s Dr. Hosseinzedah.
A Solution in the Works
The federal government is trying to come up with a plan. The Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA-4), is calling on Congress to implement an updated helium plan that will prevent impending helium shortages and bring down cost. He says legislation to that end will come in 2013.
For now, party stores and florists continue to struggle with higher prices and lower supplies. New helium plants are being built or operating in Wyoming, Algeria and Qatar, but at this point it’s unclear how they will affect the shortage.