Shortage brings rise in price of helium

Columbus Dispatch


Helium prices are rising faster than a runaway balloon, and tighter supplies of the lighter-than-air gas are turning some party suppliers into party poopers as they ration rental tanks and balloons.

“The last time I paid for helium was three weeks ago,” said Dylan Lane, manager of Cap Party Supplies in Columbus.

“It was $186.50 for a tank of 291 cubic feet. This time last year, it cost $68 for a tank.”

In a recent survey of balloon stores, florists and others by the International Balloon Association, 54 percent of respondents said they were experiencing difficulty obtaining helium, and almost 90 percent said they had experienced a price increase in helium in the past year.

The bad news: “It’s going to be tight for a while,”said Maura Garvey of trade publication CryoGas International.

But the good news is, “it’s a temporary situation,” she said. “There have been some stories that the world is running out of helium, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

Several issues have been at work, she said, leading to the current shortages.

In the United States, a larger portion of helium comes from the government’s National Helium Reserve, a vast underground gas field in Amarillo, Texas, that was started in 1925 to guarantee a supply for essential uses. Another big source — the world’s largest helium facility, in fact — is a plant in western Wyoming owned by Exxon Mobil Corp.

Both the federal facility and the Exxon Mobil facility had to shut down for maintenance in the past few months.

Big plants overseas, in Algeria and Qatar, slowed their production of helium during the recession and have yet to get back up to speed.

“So there aren’t enough plants in place to meet the demand,” Garvey said. “Customers have been put on up-to-50-percent allocation. That’s why balloon people haven’t been able to get it.”

Although helium is probably best known for its use in party balloons, it is far more commonly used — when it is cooled into a liquid — as a coolant in medical and manufacturing devices.

For example, hospitals use helium to cool the magnets in MRI machines, and the aerospace and electronics industries are major users of helium in manufacturing. One computer maker recently unveiled the first disk drive that spins in a compartment filled with helium instead of air.

Because Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center is prioritized to get whatever it needs, it hasn’t experienced a shortage of helium, a spokesman said. But medical-center officials have noticed higher prices for helium, he said.

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