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Helium Shortage Goes ‘Way Beyond Birthday Balloons’

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (Feb. 11, 2014) – If you’ve been in the market for celebration or party balloons, you may have run into the helium shortage.

Helium is being used in a wide range of industries that you may not even be aware of. From MRI’s to computer chip manufacturing and nuclear reactors, the nationwide helium shortage goes well beyond party balloons, and the lack of helium will be felt right here in West Michigan.

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, but because it’s lighter than air it floats right out of Earth’s atmosphere.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, and some would argue the helium is being used up just for fun.

Used up in the name of fun?Michael Connell works at Kent Novelty in Grand Rapids, which sells balloons for all occasions.  “You never know when you are going to be able to get a tank from week to week,” he said. “Just hope that the relationship with the supplier continues and go from there.”

It’s tough news for those who rely on the naturally found element to make a living.

“We’re paying about 40 to 50 percent more than we were before,” said Connell.

Balloons are only a fraction of business, Connell said. They do help get people in the door, but Kent Novelty could continue to do business without helium.

Dr. Michael Barcelona, a chemistry professor at Western Michigan University, paints a different picture. “We can’t have this happen,” he said of the helium shortage. “This is way beyond birthday balloons.”

Dr. Barcelona uses helium in daily lab experiments. “All of our graduate students use instruments, and they have 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to it.”

A fresh tank is dropped off monthly and used in a $250,000 machine that keeps extremely powerful magnets cool. “We would lose the magnets if we didn’t have liquid helium in there.”

In liquid form, the temperature of helium gets close to absolute zero, the coldest liquid on the planet and one of the most stable, which makes it extremely valuable.

“It’s safe,” said Barcelona. “Other gases, we would have to be much more careful with, especially the hydrocarbon gases. They are flammable and combustible, so it’s vital to a number of things in chemistry and biology, not to mention the medical applications like the magnetic resonance imaging.”

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI machines, are used continuously. “The helium is used to super-cool the magnet, because the magnet is very powerful,” said Kati Guercio, a special imaging manager for Holland Hospital.  “It’s about 60 times the pull of gravity of the earth.”

MRI manufactures have adapted to the problem of depleting resources. “We have a closed system so it prevents the helium from escaping,” said Guercio.

Adjustments to the design of MRI machines are being considered. “I think what they are looking at, to my understanding, as no-helium system or extremely low-helium, because helium is in low supply. So once it’s gone, it’s gone,” she said.

It’s not just just MRIs: computer chips, a powerful industry with a lot of lobbying power, are manufactured with helium. “Semiconductors like Intel, that is their bread and butter,” said Dr. Barcelona.

Nuclear reactors, such as the Palisades Nuclear Station in Covert, can use helium to cool reactors, which is why it’s hard for some to understand why we continue to use the gas in party balloons. Helium is an element locked away in the earth’s crust, often captured by companies that are drilling for a more profitable commodity, like oil or gas.

“The amount of helium in the earth is very little,” said Dr. Barcelona.

The federal government has a helium reserve in Texas, about ten billion cubic feet of the element providing nearly half of the nation’s supply. “It’s a big hole in the ground and a former mining area,” said Barcelona.  “They chill the helium down and pressurize it and keep adding to it, because helium is an off-product with some natural gas deposits.”

That reserve is expected to fall below three billion cubic feet within the next six years. When that happens, the government supply of helium will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  That’s a scary proposition for those who rely on the element. “I think we are going to be trying to avoid the use of helium in the future or doing the recapture,” said Dr. Barcelona. “Those are really the two alternatives we have.”

A limited supply of helium will likely keep the potential of this valuable element grounded.

Hard to imagine for a gas lighter than air.

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