Nationwide Helium Shortage Could Sink Your Summertime Party Decorations

While some people think of helium as being a never-ending source of floating balloons and chipmunk voices, the relatively warm winter of 2012 has apparently resulted in a nationwide helium shortage that could leave summer weddings and parties with fewer floating decorations than people had hoped for.

CBS New York reports that some stores that supply helium party balloons have had to place limits on how many balloons customers can buy. Other stores are advising customers that their balloons might be under-filled or that some of the balloons may just be filled with air.

“We are definitely in a crisis mode now regarding helium supply and our ability to obtain helium,” says a rep for a helium supply company that has stopped taking on new customers until the shortage ends. “We’ve taken austerity measures and we’ve put people on allocation. Certainly for the most critical needs we need service, some helium is better than no helium.”

It’s expected that our national helium crisis could end by late July, though most of us would have finished celebrating Independence Day (the holiday, not the Will Smith movie) by that point.

But lest you think this is an omen of bad things to come for the party decoration business, remember that we did survive a similar global helium shortage back in 2006.

 

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  1. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    now i am curious as to what a critical need for helium entails

    • dolemite says:

      Well, the crisis is: we have a very limited supply. It’s pretty vital to scientists and researchers trying to do important experimentation, and also to people that want to sound like Alvin.

    • Charles Edward Winthrop III, Esquire, Investigator of the Unknown Music says:

      Been wondering that for years myself. WHY does the federal government keep a “tactical helium reserve” anyway?

    • TheMansfieldMauler says:
    • fsnuffer says:

      Helium is critical in rockets. It is used for fuel tank pressurization.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressure-fed_cycle_%28rocket%29

      • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

        Well, the government canned Nasa, so we can release all that supply to small children who want to speak in very high pitched voices.

        Crisis averted!

    • Torchwood says:

      Helium is also used when doing Tig welding on aluminum.

      • Revolverkiller says:

        exactly! i tried explaining this fact of a shortage to my friends in welding class and they thought i was freaking crazy.

    • celinesci says:

      It’s used to cool MRI’s in the medical field and NMR’s for science. It’s also used as a carrier gas in gas chromatography.

    • triniphen says:

      Helium doesn’t just hang around like the heavier gasses in the atmosphere, it literally floats into space, earth’s gravity cant hold on to it, hydrogen too. The helium we get comes mainly from oil and gas production where it seeped into the gas/oil pocket over a long period of time. It originated from radioactive decay of elements deep in the earth. Up here once its gone, its gone for good.

      We use it for our superconducting magnets, the helium is in a liquid state at 4 degrees Kelvin. It enables us to have a very small but powerful magnet for studying compounds via NMR. Medical MRI is very similar, but instead of sticking a small test tube in the center of the magnet, they stick you in the center of the magnet. Generally, when you get things as cold as 4K, the molecules REALLY slow down, enough to study and manipulate them. And yes when we refill the magnet Dewar with liquid helium we do get “boil off” and we talk like chipmunks

  2. smbizowner says:

    helium is used as a coolant for medical equipment -( PET, MRI scanners etc) and in manufacturing.

    the CBC has a great article here:http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/story/2012/06/18/wdr-helium-shortage.html

    My company has been out of helium since March. I do not expect anymore this year and we are also debating whether to offer balloons anymore due to the increase in cost. A tank that used to cost $100 6 years ago is now $600

    • Firethorn6 says:

      I’d MUCH rather see the helium going to keep devices like MRI’s working, and cooling superconductors for particle accellerators than keeping party balloons floating.

      I’m sad about the shortage, but rate party balloons aproximately 1/1000th that of the above.

      Of course, my suggestion would be to use hydrogen, it’d let you end your parties with a bang. ;)

      • smbizowner says:

        Yes, Hydrogen

        that’s what my business partner wanted to sell to the whiners and complainers who bitched when we told them no Helium (like it was OUR FAULT).

        but we couldn’t get the insurance company to agree to cover our Ass.

      • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

        clearly people will just need to rub their party balloons on the cat and then stick them to the ceiling. not only is it less expensive but it’s also an optional party game

    • GitEmSteveDaveHatesChange says:

      Hopefully they don’t use liquid helium. It has no viscosity!

  3. AtlantaCPA says:

    I actually kind of wonder if we’ll still have helium balloons in the near future. There is a finite amount of helium (unless you want radioactive helium it can’t be produced) and when we run out we run out for good. Since there are medical and other important uses, I can see our children looking back on us and wondering why we were so irresponsible to just use it to blow up balloons for so long.

    • SirWired says:

      It can be separated from natural gas, where it is present in quantities large enough for capture. That supply will hold out as long as the natural gas does. For a long time, we didn’t do any production at all, relying on the drawdown of the National Helium Reserve. We produce some now, but they don’t quite have all the bugs worked out yet.

      It is correct that we can’t “make” more, but there are a lot of things we can’t make that we are in no danger of running out of.

  4. Happy Tinfoil Cat says:

    Can’t choose my response.

    1. Meh, helium is 12x more abundant than all other elements combined (per the Wiki). Artificial shortage to gouge us customers. ;^)

    2. I make my own helium at home in my reactor.

    3. The super secret military project “MicroBlackHole” uses the bulk of naturally occurring helium. Much of the rest is used in the billions of spy balloons that read our minds from the edge of space. Always remember to keep your tinfoil hat on tight when thinking about the ‘Uprising’.

    • AtlantaCPA says:

      12x more abundant in the universe, not on Earth. The problem with this planet of ours is helium rises, and just keeps going until it leaves our atmosphere. Helium is mined and once it’s gone it’s gone.

      Making it in your reactor is fine, but it’s also radioactive. So you’ll sound like Alvin and look like the human torch. Bonus!

      • nonsequiturmine says:

        “Making it in your reactor is fine, but it’s also radioactive. So you’ll sound like Alvin and look like the human torch. Bonus!”

        Not true, it is impossible for helium to be radioactive. Just the isotopes that come with it will be. All you need to do is filter the radioactive elements out and enjoy your Alvin voice.

        Plus I get all the helium I need from my smoke detectors.

        • JP says:

          Helium has no radioactive isotopes. Maybe some contaminants in the He are radioactive but the He itself is not.

          • nonsequiturmine says:

            That’s exactly what I was trying to say. All you need to do is filter out the long lived particulates and let short lived gaseous isotopes decay.

            • AtlantaCPA says:

              I tip my hat to you both. I had read once that it was impractical to produce b/c of the radioactivity, but that may have been before the possibility of filtering out the baddies. (I wonder how difficult it is to filter, might just be expensive but not impossible as you say)

    • Delicious Spam is delicious says:

      +1, +1, +!

  5. Howard says:

    I have faith in the American people. We will persevere. We will survive this tragedy. We will come out stronger as a nation because of this.

  6. PragmaticGuy says:

    If the US had sold helium to the Germans back in 1938 the Hindenburg would still be flying but because we wouldn’t as it was such an important resource the Hindy was filled with hydrogen. And we all know what happened next.

    • Cerne says:

      That’s a good point. I mean I can’t think of any reason to avoid doing business with 1938 Germany.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Had post-WWI Germany not been beaten to death and left to starve, there would have been no reason to avoid doing business with them later. Funny how we make our own problems.

  7. Pete the Geek says:

    Switch to hydrogen and just don’t use candles, sparklers or any other source of open flame.

  8. tofupuppy says:

    Weird. I noticed this when I went to a party store last month. They had posted signs saying they were unable to inflate balloons purchased elsewhere because of the helium shortage.

    • TerpBE says:

      So I guess balloons purchased elsewhere use more helium than balloons purchased from them?

      Sounds like a scare tactic to increase sales.

      • mbz32190 says:

        OTOH, I would be pissed if I bought balloons from a store and they couldn’t fill my balloons because they were filling people that bought theirs somewhere else…

  9. justhypatia says:

    “We’ve taken austerity measures”

    Dear lord, am I going to have to seen that word every time somebody is restricting something? Just waiting for the “Austerity Diet” now; bigger than Atkins I tell you.

  10. Kuri says:

    Really hope we can find a way to refine it or extract it.

  11. gman863 says:

    “The party baloons are crashing to the ground…I can’t bear to watch…OH, THE HUMANITY!”

    • Golfer Bob says:

      Wow, that’s even more off color than the Chinese joke in the Takeout Sauce post….wonder if anyone will get this? Sad. Also, it was hydrogen, not helium.

      • gman863 says:

        Yes, I know The Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen…and thank you for vaidating my sick sense of humor.

  12. RickinStHelen says:

    Congress passed a law mandating the US get out of the Helium business back in the 90s. The thought was that private industry would jump in and replace the government’s role in storage and distribution. That never happened. The last US Gov’t helium plant left is supposed to be sold or out of business by 2015, but will probably have the date extended. When they passed the law, everyone thought helium balloons and dirigibles, but it turned out that Helium is prestty scarce as a commercial product, and pretty valuable. It also turns out the biggest customer is the US Government. So we are going to sell our helium facility so we can then buy helium on the private market at a higher cost. God Bless the USA.

  13. JW @ AllThingsFinance says:

    Helium has become a popular alternative to water and dry ice when cooling computer components. With the release of the new Intel CPU, Ivy Bridge, the demand to cool it is high right now.

  14. GrandizerGo says:

    As long as 3 years ago, our He supplier told us that the reason we are in short supply of He in the US is that companies like theirs makes FAR MORE MONEY supplying to overseas customers then to us in America. Because of that, we are in a shorter supply then normal.
    Where we use to order delivered bottles of He, and receive them next day, we can now wait up to a full week to get our entire supply.
    We have a contract, so if we ever run out because they could not supply us with our order in time, they pay for our down time.

    As someone above said, one of the main uses of He is for purging other gases out of contained spaces so as to retain a certain purity of atmosphere.
    However, He is also a pretty small molecule so is very difficult to keep in spaces that have not been sealed properly.

  15. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    //We are definitely in a crisis mode now regarding helium supply and our ability to obtain helium//
    … he said, his voice sounding strangely more high-pitched an nasal than normal.

  16. Golfer Bob says:

    “We are definitely in a crisis mode now regarding helium supply and our ability to obtain helium. We’ve taken austerity measures and we’ve put people on allocation. Certainly for the most critical needs we need service, some helium is better than no helium.

    So please remember, all of us here at Schooner Tuna sympathize with all of you hit so hard by these trying economic times. In order to help you, we are reducing the price of Schooner Tuna by 50 cents a can. When this crisis is over, we will go back to our regular prices. Until then, remember, we’re all in this together. Schooner Tuna. The tuna with a heart.”

  17. teamplur says:

    Helium is a critical component of LCD screens. Apperantly the govt controls the cost of helium artificially keeping it very low and cheap. If it were not controlled a balloon worth of helium would cost about $100. When we run out in 20 years or so, just hope they have a newer way to make displays.