Helium shortage creating trouble for industry, health care, birthday parties

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 4:55 p.m. MDT

Brooke Barlow, who just turned 5, and her mother, Staci, bought balloons for Brooke's birthday party from Zurchers in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. A national shortage of helium is affecting everything from the number of balloons you can buy to high-tech industry and health care.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A slowdown in sales of party balloons isn't normally an important economic indicator, but it may be the tip of an iceberg of trouble.

A helium shortage that started in May is stretching on much longer than expected and has now been labeled a "crisis" by federal officials.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," said Samuel Burton at the Federal Helium Reserve, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Amarillo, Texas. He said a "scramble" is under way to maintain healthy supplies of the gas for critical uses in the military, industry, even in medicine.

According to Burton, the shortage is due to many factors involving everything from last winter's warm weather to plant-maintenance issues in Algeria to a wildfire in Wyoming.

The shortage is ironic because helium is the second-most common element in the Universe. On Earth, it's captured as a waste product in natural gas fields.

Another irony is that most people will only notice the shortage of helium in its most frivolous use — balloons. The shortage, though, is serious and has potential effects on important sectors of the economy.

"Pretty much anything that's a high-tech industry," Burton said, "there's probably helium in its manufacture somewhere."

Brooke Barlow was oblivious to the helium shortage as her mother bought a clutch of helium balloons for Brooke's 5th birthday. "I think they're pretty important," Staci Barlow said as she walked with her daughter. "They make it so much more fun."

She bought the balloons at Zurcher's Party & Wedding Store in Salt Lake City, one of 11 party stores owned by Nick Zurcher in Utah and Idaho.

"For me, helium is very important to me," Zurcher said. "It's our business."

Zurcher still gets enough helium deliveries to serve customers most of the time. But his stores in Utah tend to run out near the end of each week. That's the part of the week when many customers want helium balloons.

"Some weeks (the suppliers) are able to give us all the helium we need," Zurcher said. "And then the next week we might be a little short."

The balloon business constitutes less than 1 percent of the helium market. As shortages have lingered, helium suppliers are giving priority to bigger, more important customers.

The Federal Helium Reserve currently supplies 42 percent of the nation's helium and about one-third of the world's demand. The gas is used in welding, lasers, manufacturing, and even in imaging equipment such as MRIs in the health care industry. It also plays a vital role in laboratory operations and the space program.

The U.S. Navy began storing billions of cubic feet of helium in the Federal Helium Reserve decades ago at a time when dirigibles and barrage balloons were major military assets. In 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act that gave the BLM management authority over the helium reserve. The agency was directed to begin selling the gas to private industry, a move aimed at paying off $1.3 billion in debt associated with the helium reserve.

Although some critics believe BLM practices have caused or contributed to the shortage, Burton said that is not true.

"Actually, since 2003 we have been selling, offering for sale, 2.1 billion cubic feet of helium," each year, he said.

The shortage results primarily from rising worldwide demand, coupled with short-term difficulties at helium plants around the world, Burton said. A set of talking points issued by the BLM states, "The current crisis can be traced to maintenance issues at plants in Qatar, Algeria, Australia."

Even a Wyoming wildfire this year played a role by slowing construction of a helium plant, Burton said.

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