Where has all the helium gone?
November 23, 2006 6:34 PM   Subscribe

So...I'm waiting in line at Publix (a local supermarket), and I happen to notice a note taped to the register which reads, "We are no longer able to offer balloons to children because of a national helium shortage." Is this a real problem? I mean, seriously, a national helium shortage?!?!?
posted by AlliKat75 to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
National Helium Shortage.

The second-most abundant element in the universe is suddenly getting harder and harder to find. Party stores and florist shops grounded in the balloon business are caught in a helium shortage gripping suppliers across the country and in Texas, where one-third of the world’s helium production is overseen.

Supply of the noble gas — second only to hydrogen in the universe but rare on Earth in terms of quantity — has depleted while production from two large international sites is temporarily down.

Not helping matters is scheduled maintenance at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s National Helium Reserve complex in Amarillo, which will curtail production for 10 days starting Wednesday.

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:38 PM on November 23, 2006

Response by poster: Wow! I never would have thought such a shortage was possible. Thanks for the answer.
posted by AlliKat75 at 6:40 PM on November 23, 2006

Yeah, they're running pipes to the White House for the hot air supply. *rimshot*.

I heard about this on NPR a couple of weeks ago. This is very real, although I'm not sure what actually caused the shortage. I was actually asking my mother today if the Macy's parade still had the big balloons.
posted by Malor at 6:45 PM on November 23, 2006

Doesn't helium just escape out of our atmosphere because it's so light?
posted by danb at 7:01 PM on November 23, 2006

Why don't they just raise the prices? This isn't the Soviet economy. Raise the prices and curb demand.
posted by rolypolyman at 7:10 PM on November 23, 2006

NPR did a piece on this a few weeks ago - check it out.
posted by wfrgms at 7:19 PM on November 23, 2006

My husband works in the helium gas industry. Production in the US has been slowing down for a few years now (because, in general, other gases yield more profit resulting in some wells being shut down). There was also a contamination at the Amarillo storage facility not too long ago.
posted by LadyBonita at 7:57 PM on November 23, 2006

Why don't they just raise the prices? This isn't the Soviet economy. Raise the prices and curb demand.

Presumably this is exactly what happened. Demand is curbed when people decide that it's too expensive and don't buy any. Which would be what Publix did. If Publix decided that giving out balloons was so important that it was worth paying any price for the helium, I'm sure they'd be able to get their hands on some.
posted by winston at 8:02 PM on November 23, 2006

Uses for Helium:
* filling balloons (blimps) as it is a much safer gas than hydrogen
* inert gas shielding for arc welding in countries where helium is cheaper than argon
* protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, and in titanium and zirconium production
* cooling medium for nuclear reactors
* a mixture of 80% helium and 20% oxygen is used as an artificial atmosphere for divers and others working under pressure
* cryogenic applications
* as a gas for supersonic wind tunnels
* a protective gas for semiconductor materials
* pressurizing liquid fuel rockets
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:24 PM on November 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

I also have heard from several knowledgeable people over the years, that helium is essentially a non-renewable resource, at least here on Earth. It's so light that when released into the atmosphere, it's not recoverable.

Whether kids' balloons are a significant consumer of He, as opposed to the industrial and medical applications (I think most MRI machines use a fair bit if liquefied He), would be interesting to find out. If supplies are really running low, helium-filled balloons may be on their way out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:38 PM on November 23, 2006

Oh, and Re: The Macey's parade, apparently they locked down their ration over a hear ago, long before the shortage began.
posted by piratebowling at 8:44 PM on November 23, 2006

If supplies are really running low, helium-filled balloons may be on their way out.

That would be a problem since there would only be one other gas that we could use. You know who else had to use that gas due to helium shortages? Hitler.
posted by ernie at 9:22 PM on November 23, 2006 [2 favorites]

Hydrogen filled kiddie balloons are a lot more fun, anyway. Take: 20 oz soda bottle, lye, aluminum foil. Put the latter two in the first. Stretch balloon neck over bottle. Wait.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:51 PM on November 23, 2006

Inflation strikes balloon sellers: Helium prices are through the roof.

Somebody had way too much fun writing that headline.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 11:39 PM on November 23, 2006

A similar thing is happening in SA except we're experiencing a fizzy drink shortage due to a drop in the production of CO2 gas.
posted by PenDevil at 12:07 AM on November 24, 2006

Helium is light enough to escape the atmosphere as danb said. It has to be mined. Sounds silly for something that makes balloons float, but there you go.

It is formed from alpha particles from radioactive decays in the earth, and has to be extracted from natural gas. It's effectively non-renewable in the same way fossil fuels are.

Consumers of large amounts of helium will often go to some lengths to avoid wasting it, recycling and avoiding leaks. You'll see for example, that the use of liquid helium is a lot more careful than liquid nitrogen since nitrogen can be extracted from the air, but helium's a lot harder to come by and a lot more expensive as a result.
posted by edd at 1:16 AM on November 24, 2006

ernie, I love you.

But from the Laredo Morning Times comes this:
Robert Park, a University of Maryland physics professor and officer of the American Physical Society, worries that helium will one day be scarce at a time when mankind really needs it.
'One day'?! Mr. Park, who do you think you're kidding? The crisis is upon us. Three of my dirigibles are already grounded, and it grows increasingly difficult to keep precious documents out of the hands of the RAND corporation. If they should acquire what they think is solid proof of the Freemason/Sasquatch connection, I dare say the consequences would be nothing short of apocalyptic—not only for Morocco, which I'm certain you have already imagined, but for all of us! Consider what you read in the last New York Times crossword, consider the implications! and I feel you must agree....

Anyone with a dirigible to spare that does not use the fascist technique, you know how to contact me. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.
posted by eritain at 2:17 AM on November 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

One of w-p g's cryogenic applications is indeed MRI, because liquid helium is used in superconductiing magnets. Years ago, MRI machines were refilled with LH2 on a regular schedule, which cost a lot of money even then. Now, the helium is recondensed to liquid by cryocoolers installed in the magnet, so topping up the LH2 is infrequent.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 AM on November 24, 2006

It's striking to see how many articles prognosticating the helium shortage are dated 2000-2001. I guess it shouldn't be a huge surprise that this shortage has been foreseen, but it's creepy to think that something as seemingly ubiquitous as the helium in balloons is running out. Obviously, oil is even more ubiquitous and is also running out, but this just plain seems different. It's a fresh situation, it seems like a fairly abrupt situation at the consumer-end, and there isn't a Big Helium perception of the industry.

It's like gradually gaining 400 pounds after high school graduation, only to be shocked to discover at the reunion that your high school sweetheart has gained 450. So now you're both disgustingly fat.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:27 AM on November 24, 2006

Also, mining for helium seems like something about of a Ben Marcus novel.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:29 AM on November 24, 2006

"Mining" is probably not quite the right word. As noted, helium is extracted from natural gas. The diminishing natural gas reserves mean the helium supply is also diminishing.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:52 AM on November 24, 2006

dose this mean the balloon has burst
posted by baker dave at 8:34 AM on November 24, 2006

They warned us but we didn't listen.
posted by lucien at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2006

But their voices were so squeaky!
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:08 PM on November 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

The advertised shortage is most likely a temporary one. Here in Europe, there was a similar dip a few months ago, when two He-producing oil wells in the Middle East were down for maintainance. Right now there seems to be plenty available.

Still, it's true that helium leaves the atmosphere and is a non-renewable resource. It's also not something you can store practically for a long time, except in a place like the US' National Helium Reserve (which is a big cave). I work with low temperature physics, and that requires lots of liquid He. We're planning to install a recycling system soon.

Regarding the price, helium is not really traded on a spot market, because there is so much logistics involved that you can't just switch supplier on a day's notice. Instead, most big consumers have long-term deals for it. For people with massive pieces of cold equipment, such as MRI machines, a continuous supply of helium is incredibly important. Re-cooling something big after it's been allowed to warm up is hideously expensive. Someone told me that it takes about a tank truck full of liquid He to get an MRI magnet to base temperature. The owners of those probably have contracts that guarantee them proirity over the balloon vendors.
posted by springload at 4:56 PM on November 24, 2006

The owners of those [MRIs] probably have contracts that guarantee them proirity over the balloon vendors. - springload

As they should.
posted by raedyn at 11:23 AM on November 26, 2006

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