Global helium shortage will affect more than just your next party

When you think of helium, you probably think of balloons, right? Well a recent global helium shortage isn’t just affecting your access to balloons.

It’s a critical element that’s used in things like airbags, fiber optics, deep sea diving, in NASA’s rocket fuel engines and in MRI machines, as Montclair Radiology CEO Bill diTosto explains.

“Helium is used as a super cooling liquid that is in the inside of these magnets. And it runs at almost absolute zero — it runs at minus 269 degrees below zero. That high magnetic field is used to image patients,” diTosto said.

For things like tumors, cancer or fractures that don’t show up in an X-ray.

“It’s ironic that we’re running out of helium because helium is actually the second most abundant element in the universe,” diTosto said.

The problem? It’s found mostly in space. And because it’s lighter than air, when it’s released it escapes the Earth’s atmosphere.

“It’s very hard to renew here on earth because it’s used after millions of years of decaying nuclear elements that are inside the earth’s crust,” DiTosto said.

It’s mined in only a few locations on earth — Qatar, Algeria and here in the U.S. in Texas and Wyoming. But a 1996 federal law required that all the stored helium in the Federal Helium Reserve be sold off by 2015.

But it’s not all bad news for machines like MRIs, that decades ago were developed with efficient recycling systems.

“The helium very slowly boils off to a gas, and that gas is captured by the unit and fed into a compressor, very much the way your refrigerator works, right in your kitchen,” said diTosto.

It’s almost 100% effective. But not all industries have a system to recycle helium. Take Bruker, a manufacturer of the magnetic instruments used in MRIs and other imaging. They use helium during the testing phase of the magnets. It’s not recycled and the shortage is hurting their operation.

“The price of liquid helium over the past year, maybe two years has roughly doubled for us. It’s a pretty significant cost for us. But even a greater concern is the availability of the product. Sometimes when we go to our suppliers, they don’t have any more to sell to us,” said Jeff Parrell, senior vice president and COO of Bruker Energy and Supercon Technologies.

He says it hasn’t shut down their testing yet, but it’s a concern. And with the increased helium costs, investing in a very expensive recycling system is starting looking more appealing. And remember those balloons? Well the shortage is hurting party planners too.

Earlier this year, Party City announced it was closing several stores, citing the helium shortage as a factor in their annual sales dropping. The owners of Party Plus in Washington Township told us how it’s affected their business.

“We’ve had three major helium increases since Dec. 31, 2018. Another one in January, another in February and then another in March. It used to be $130 a tank. Now it’s up to $275 a tank. So that’s a significant increase,” said Ian Swatt, co-owner of Party Plus.

So many balloon companies are coming up with new ways to present their balloon structures, like attaching them to metal rods so they can avoid using helium altogether.

“A lot of our structures actually are without helium. Some of the bigger installations such as large arches, garlands, columns.  Those are all air-based,” said Party Plus co-owner Raquel Alvarado.

So the next time you throw a party, or better yet, suck in that helium to make your voice sound funny, just remember that’s a precious, non-renewable element that saves lives.

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