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Helium Shortage No Laughing Matter, Scientists Say

Barbara Brosher

Helium - an element that plays a critical role in science and medicine - is becoming more and more difficult to find.

At the same time, the U.S. Geological Survey reports demand for helium has increased.

That’s causing prices to climb and researchers to worry. It’s also affecting business owners like Norm and Pamela Ladd.

Their company, Blast Off Balloons, in Bloomington, has filled a lot of orders for Indiana University graduations since Pamela Ladd started the business in the 1970s.   She wanted a job that would bring people joy, and balloons seem to do the trick.  

In the past few years, however, the number of people buying balloons has dropped and Pamela Ladd says business has slowed.

She estimates they’re paying five or six times as much for tanks of helium than they were ten years ago.

“Prices have gone up astronomical(ly),” she says. “So it’s lowered business. A lot of people can’t afford balloons. Who would have thought a simple balloon would be a luxury item?”

Helium is a non-renewable resource that’s only found in a few locations throughout the world.

It’s a byproduct of natural gas production, and the United States is the largest producer of Helium in the world. There are plants in Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Oklahoma. 

But Indiana University PhD candidate Andrew Storey says those resources could eventually be depleted.

“It’s not very abundant,” he says. “It’s about .00005 percent of the atmosphere here on earth. However, it is the second most available element in outer space. But being able to actually capture large amounts of gas and bringing it down to earth is quite difficult.”

The U.S. Government owns much of the country’s helium, and also is the nation’s largest consumer of the resource.

The 2013 Helium Stewardship Act requires the U.S. to auction off federal helium and any associated properties by September 2021.

The Bureau of Land Management held its second auction of federal helium earlier this year which resulted in more than $28 million in revenue.

The second largest consumer of helium is Macy’s, which uses helium in its annual Thanksgiving Day parade.

The element also plays an important role in hospitals around the world.

Liquid helium is the only resource that can cool the superconductive magnets found in MRI equipment to the very low temperatures necessary to capture detailed images of organs and tissues.

The resource has similar applications in the world of science, where Storey says it’s often used to conduct research.

“One of the things that we’re implementing is what we call the flowing atmospheric pressure afterglow source,” he says. “It’s an ion source that allows us to probe a surface and look at the molecules that are on that surface.”

There is no substitute for helium when it comes to cooling materials to very low temperatures, which is what it’s used for most often in the U.S.

Scientists like the ones working in IU’s Chemistry lab are trying to find ways to conserve the precious resource.

And with some applications Storey says they’ve been successful.

“We’ve made it so that we can operate the source discontinuously, where we can turn it off for maybe 55 seconds out of every minute and turn it on to simply make the plasma sustained, sample whatever we might want and then turn it off when we’re not using it without losing a lot of stability of the instrument overall,” he says.

A more widespread solution to the problem has yet to be discovered.

Until one is, the price of helium will continue to climb.

And that’s forced Pamela and her husband to stop advertising their balloon business, only filling orders from repeat clients.

She’s not sure how much longer they’ll be able to afford supplying fun to customers.