Gainesville Daily Register

February 13, 2013

Prices rise as helium supplies dwindle

By CATHY MOUNCE, Register Staff Writer

— With the world’s helium reserves in short supply and Valentines Day just around the corner, at least one area gift and floral supply retailer said she’s lucky to be able to get her hands on the inert gas.

“The price seems to be going up,” said All About Flowers manager Barbara McKinney. “ I am just happy to have it.”

McKinney said speciality balloons are a large portion of her business.

In addition to filling birthday and other special occasion balloons, helium, is also critical for research projects and every day activities.

Scientists have called on a ban for helium use for all but the most essential uses. Helium filled balloons at parties would be one of the first things to be eliminated.

Peter Wothers of Cambridge University said, “Fifty years from now our children will be saying they can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons.”

Because helium is a by product of natural gas extraction, a drop in natural gas prices has made it difficult to capture helium economically and profitably. In addition, supplier’s ability to meet growing demand has been affected by strained production problems world wide.

Approximately 30 per cent of the world’s helium is stored  underground in a facility north of downtown Amarillo. The Texas city calls itself the helium capital of the world and erected a Helium Monument in 1968. The underground storage area has about 11 billion cubic feet of crude helium stored thousands of feet underground.

Although helium is the second most common element on Earth, only a finite amount is available and is non-renewable.

Operated under the federal  Bureau of Land Management,  Sam Burton is the assistant field manager for helium operations  at the Amarillo facility. In a recent article he said, “The shortage is due to demand exceeding our ability to produce helium.”

He continued,”Typically in the past there has been enough helium in the distribution system that the end consumer was not affected. We now have an extended shortage and all the helium that’s been in the supply chain has been expended.”

Helium is the element with the lowest boiling point of any known substances and the shortage has affected research center studies of the brain using magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanners similar to the MRI machines.  The MEGs need to be topped off with liquid helium on a frequent basis and if the supply is not available it forces research centers into a forced shutdown.

Liquid helium is critical for the cooling of infrared detectors in nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. As the world’s energy programs turn to more use of wind tunnels and nuclear power, helium will become more important as it becomes more scarce.

Helium is used to cool the magnets in semiconductors for mobile phones and fibre-optic cables are made in  a helium atmosphere.

Deep sea divers use a mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen to avoid disorientation as they breathe under water,

Rocket fuel consists of highly explosive liquid hydrogen and oxygen.  Helium is used to clean the fuel tanks when aircraft is grounded because it is inert and therefore safe.

Helium is also used in welding.

A staggering 8 per cent of the world’s helium supply is currently being released into the air through party filled balloons.

In the future, the balloons we knew as children may be just a floating memory.