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

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Last winter's warm weather also was a factor, he said. Lower demand for heating led to reductions in natural gas production and, consequently, less helium was recovered at the wellheads.

An industry insider who asked to remain anonymous said he believes U.S. helium suppliers bear part of the blame. "Some companies," he said, "are selling it overseas because they get a premium price for it."

In any case, it appears the shortage will not end quickly. According to the BLM's talking points, "The present acute shortage is expected to continue through late 2013 until new supply sources come online in the U.S. and overseas."

Until then, the BLM document said, some U.S. companies are cutting back deliveries of helium to customers "by 10 to 15 percent from originally contracted amounts."

Some suppliers have cut off deliveries entirely to balloon businesses.

Zurcher said he's lucky he's had to deal with only minor reductions. He doesn't begrudge the fact that priority is given to more important helium users.

"I understand that health care needs it," Zurcher said. "And I think that's good."

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Not just for filling balloons

Here's some helium uses you might not expect:

• Popular as a gas shield for arc welding

• Helps in guidance corrections for air-to-air missiles

• Protects growing silicon and germanium crystals

• Is a cooling medium for nuclear reactors

• Combines with oxygen to create an artificial atmosphere for divers

• Used in cryogenics

• Preserves rare documents, such as the Declaration of Independence

• Part of supersonic wind tunnels

• Is a pressurizing agent for liquid fuel rockets

• Found in neon lasers

• Fills Border Patrol's AEROSTAT blimps

Source: Bureau of Land Management

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com