An extended helium shortage has put the future of balloons in danger.
While scientific and industrial uses of helium are holding steady, the mainstream consumer helium industry, which includes your birthday balloons, may be on the verge of popping.
Balloons are the most well-known use of helium, but the lightweight gas is also used in MRI scanners, welding, breathing devices, cryogenics and other scientific research. Helium suppliers direct sales to the latter uses during a prolonged shortage.
Businesses that sell balloons are feeling he squeeze from suppliers of the nonrenewable gas.
Natalie Adams, store manager at the Rose Shop in Idaho Falls, said her store hasn’t been able to sell balloons since the end of January.
“We still can’t buy helium,” she said. “It’s not our bread and butter, but we have had to turn down lots of requests for balloons for the last few months.”
The Rose Shop, which typically offers balloons with floral arrangements, buys helium from Norco, a regional gas supplier. The supplier told the Rose Shop it is limiting helium sales to buyers in the medical industry, Adams said.
“It’s not been a problem before,” she said.
Elias Margonis, president at the Boise-based Norco, said a nine-month helium shortage has led the company to limit its sales to medical and manufacturing buyers.
“The biggest thing is the availability of the product,” Margonis said. “We just don’t have enough to supply like we have in the past.”
Sources of helium have become unstable, through depletion of U.S. resources and the political uncertainty of importing the resource.
The U.S. and Qatar are the world’s two largest producers of helium. Combined, the two countries produce nearly 90 percent of the world’s supply, according to the United States Geological Survey.
U.S. helium reserves are reaching the end of their lifespans, Margonis said. Private industry purchases of public reserves may soon end.
“Because that’s not available, a lot of companies are relying on product coming in from Qatar or overseas,” Margonis said.
The uncertainty led gas suppliers, including Norco, to limit which customers they sell to. Buyers in the medical industry, who use helium in MRI machines, and welders have first dibs.
“It’s a tough situation,” Margonis said.
Margonis said the shortage is cyclical, that helium will rebound when new suppliers are pinned down.
“The product will come back,” he said. “It’s probably just for the next couple years it’s going to be tight.”
But balloon sellers may have to make a long-term adjustment, such as switching to a different type of gas to inflate balloons. While helium sources are unstable, commercial costs of the gas will rise.
“Over time those balloons are going to cost a lot of money,” he said.
Fiber, INL unaffected
Helium is used in the manufacturing of fiber optics. Both Idaho Falls Fiber and the City of Ammon Fiber Optic Utility haven’t seen the effects of the helium shortage, according to officials at the two utilities.
Idaho National Laboratory hasn’t seen the effects either. An INL spokesperson said INL research doesn’t utilize helium.