Local helium supplies drift out of reach
A dwindling supply of the nation's helium reserves may mean fewer balloons available at local stores, at least temporarily.
Sandra Midwood, owner of the Gotta Party store in Medford, has to drive to Portland to refill her six, 300-cubic-foot helium tanks for party balloons. Local suppliers told her a year ago they could no longer supply her with the lighter-than-air gas, as hospitals, laboratories and welders take priority for available supplies.
"Balloons are half my business, for weddings, birthdays, parties," says Midwood. "We had no helium for two weeks in March, so it really hurt business. Customers are shocked that we're out of it. They can't understand it, but my local providers don't have any."
Safeway and Albertsons no longer offer helium-filled balloons.
"Customers are upset," says Anthony Kinnon of Medford Center Safeway, adding his store is on a list to get another tank.
Balloons that were $2 a year ago are now twice that, he says.
Party Place in Medford reports no helium for now, but it, too, is on a waiting list. Meanwhile, its former $2.25 balloons have gone up to $3.
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen, but very little exists in Earth's atmosphere because it's so light that gravity can't hold it. It's lighter than air — which is why helium balloons rise.
Most of the nation's helium comes as a byproduct of drilling natural gas. Natural gas producers extract the helium and sell it to the Federal Helium Reserve, a vast underground storehouse of porous rock in the Texas panhandle that is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The reserve produces about one-third of the world's helium each year.
But because of a 1996 law designed to get the government out of the helium business, supplies are being sold at bargain prices and reserves are dwindling. Meanwhile, private producers have been slow to step in to fill the void, and uses for helium — particularly in high-tech manufacturing — are skyrocketing. It's used in making computer chips, cryogenics, high-energy accelerators and welding. One of its most important uses is keeping the powerful MRI magnets cool.
Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center uses small amounts of helium to cool magnets on its MRIs and "has ample supplies," says spokesman Grant Walker. "(We are) not affected by the shortage."
Steve Baker, district manager of Industrial Source, a main supplier locally of helium, says other helium producers are experiencing problems.
"We get ours from the Exxon oil fields in North Dakota and since a normal shutdown in September, they're only operating at 85 percent of capacity," Baker says. "A lot of suppliers haven't been able to catch back up. There's more demand now and it keeps driving prices up."
He says Industrial Source is on track for supplying its priority customers, including welders, laboratories and hospitals.
Universities are another steady helium customer. At Southern Oregon University, the science department fills its helium tanks every six months at AirGas, says Dave Marshall, a chemistry department instrument manager.
"It's a cryogenic liquid we use to keep our superconducting magnet cold," he says. "It's a nuclear magnetic spectrometer used in structural determination."
The process lets students see the "atom-to-atom connection within molecules — how they all fit together," he says.
Helium is so light, he says, it actually escapes into space, reducing the supply on the planet.
"I've had no problem getting it," says Marshall, "but I have to pay a lot more. It's been a growing problem over the past five years."
Helium shortages are expected to ease June 1, when a new supply outside the U.S. comes online, says Baker. He says there are many unpredictable variables in the helium market.
"We don't make it," he says. "We can't control what comes out of the ground. But we've been able to take care of our customers. Hospitals and labs use a higher grade of helium, and our first obligation is to them."
Several bills have come before Congress to deal with the dwindling federal reserve, but lawmakers have yet to take action. Meanwhile, local stores hope international suppliers can help fill the void and keep weddings, proms, graduations and birthdays well-stocked with helium balloons.
Gotta Party "has to provide that service," says Midwood. "Still, there's no future in helium balloons. Once it runs out, it's over. But we can do all kinds of other arrangements (using air-filled balloons), such as putting them on sticks, making columns or arches, creating animals with them."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.