Helium prices spike as worldwide supplies dwindle

Helium now retails for $50 to $60

Scripps Howard News Service - If you received a heart-shaped, helium-filled balloon for Valentine's Day, be sure to treasure it.

This year, prices are starting to spike for helium balloons, and in years to come, they could become scarce. The helium that keeps those balloons afloat is a nonrenewable resource, and supplies worldwide are running low.

"We're running out of the stuff," said Bo Sears, president of Weil Helium LLC, a Dallas company that seeks untapped helium reserves to mine. "I'm sure there are long-standing contracts all over the country getting helium. But the businesses without long-standing contracts are getting squeezed out entirely. Here in Dallas, some stores have it, some don't."

In Evansville, Ind., party and flower shops were able to stock up on helium in time for Valentine's Day, which local retailers call their biggest occasion for helium balloon sales, followed closely by graduation season and New Year's.

But local suppliers say they're beginning to feel a pinch from the worldwide shortage. Helium now retails for $50 to $60 for tanks that hold 9 to 15 cubic feet. Balloons can range in price from 50 cents to $10 or more, depending on the size and shape.

"We're limited in the amount of new business we can bring in for helium because there is a shortage," said Jeff Ademec, the branch manager at American Welding & Gas in Evansville.

Although helium is one of the most common elements in the universe -- second only to hydrogen -- helium supplies on earth are extremely limited. The planet's helium was formed billions of years ago by radioactive decay, and the gas is trapped in pockets beneath the earth's surface.

Existing helium reservoirs are starting to dry up.

"It's in triage now," Sears said. "Balloons are the first to go, they're just wasting helium. When it comes out of the balloon, it is gone forever. It escapes the earth's gravity and heads out to the outer regions of space."

Balloons account for only a fraction of the world's helium consumption. In 2010, the most common use for helium in the United States was cryogenics, a branch of science that addresses the production and effects of very low temperatures. Helium is also used to pressurize and check for leaks in space-shuttle rocket engines, and to shield flammable operations from combustible materials during arc welding or semiconductor and fiber-optic manufacturing. Deep-sea divers mix helium with oxygen to prevent nitrogen from building up in their bodies. Hospitals and imaging centers use liquid helium to cool MRI magnets.

St. Mary's Health System in the Evansville area uses four MRI machines with liquid helium-cooled magnets. The helium shortage "is a concern for the hospital," said Gerald McDowell, an imaging service engineer for the hospitals. "You don't want to buy something that is going to be obsolete."

But it's unlikely hospitals will run out. Helium distributors reserve supplies for the medical industry, scientific research and government contracts.

The federal government manages the world's highest-producing helium reservoir, near Amarillo, Texas. That field is in its declining phase. A second reservoir is owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. in Wyoming.

Around the world, helium plants are located in Algeria, Australia, Poland and Russia, with more scheduled to come online, Hummel said.

After that happens, supplies should stabilize -- for the immediate future.

Rockets will continue to launch, divers will head to great depths, doctors will take pictures inside the body, scientists will conduct groundbreaking research -- and sweethearts will receive heart-shaped, floating balloons on Valentine's Day.

(Contact Jessie Higgins of The Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press at Jessie.Higgins@courierpress.com.)

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