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Helium ‘shortage’ not yet affecting West Michigan

Posted: 4:49 PM, May 21, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-21 17:33:22-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A helium shortage is apparently affecting some retailers in the state, but those in West Michigan have not yet been impacted.

And experts say we are still several decades away from a true shortage.

“There was a quote unquote helium shortage about 5-10 years ago and we had to end up using our national reserves for that," said David Benson, a Calvin College chemistry professor. "Since then, we have found other ways to recover it and there's still a bit of a shortage at this point.”

The shortage comes down to where retailers are going for their supply. Benson says the increase in price established 10 years ago helps to regulate the amount of helium that is being used.

“I would guess we could be 30-40 years out,” Benson says of the current supply.

Roy Sabo, president of Sunnyslope Floral in Grandville, says they have yet to ever run out of helium at their location, but they have heard stories from customers.

“We have had people come into the store here saying they’ve been to numerous other places that have not had helium and were coming here to get it ... I've actually been in other stores where people are taking about helium and I’m really surprised to hear that that conversation has been out there like that," Sabo said.

But experts point out that party balloons make up just a small fraction of our helium use in the United States.

"It's a number of technologies, high-tech technologies that we're completely dependent on now," Benson said. "Helium is used in the medical field inside MRI machines and in the research field inside machines used to identify molecules."

And if we were to abruptly run out of helium?

“It would definitely impact what we do research-wise, what we do in the medical sector. It would have a huge implication. So a lot of the foundational things we have today in our society are built on these technology-specific items," Benson said.

Experts say helium is such a light element that the way it is currently stored and used, much of it goes to waste. They say the only thing that can be done to protect our supply is to develop new methods of recycling unused helium.