Helium price goes way up high

Worldwide shortage of gas affects various businesses, industries

By

Published:

 

Francey Freeman has seen the cost of doing business go sky-high.

Prices for buying helium to fill balloons and rental tanks at her Balloons Fantastique in Fort Worth have dramatically increased in the past year, because of a worldwide shortage of the lighter-than-air gas.

"Prices have quadrupled," said Freeman, who owns Balloons Fantastique. "And the price just went up again a couple of weeks ago.

Freeman said a 240-cubic-foot helium-filled tank that she once rented out for $60 now goes for $175. And a batch of 12 helium-filled balloons, which for years was $10.50, now costs $15.

Texas is home to the country's only Federal Helium Reserve, a site outside Amarillo where more than one-third of the world's helium supply is produced, and the federal government has worked for years to deplete that supply.

Congress more than 15 years ago created a law requiring reserve officials to sell off their helium -- therefore privatizing the helium industry -- by 2015.

Now a handful of congressional leaders are trying to prevent the reserve from depleting its helium supply and closing its doors.

But at a time when congressional leaders are focused on other pressing matters, preventing the helium shortage from getting worse may not be a top priority.

"We cannot let our national helium supply float away," said U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Although it's the second-most abundant element in the universe, helium is running out.

The bulk of the world's helium supply -- which also is used in medical scanners, LCD screens, welding, electronics, metals, fiber optics, high-tech computer chips, aerospace and research -- is created through natural radioactive decay and can't be artificially created.

Federal officials created a federal helium program in 1925 to make sure they had adequate supplies of the gas for medicinal purposes, research and defense.

Although various sites throughout the state supplied helium through the years, the remaining site --an underground geological formation that stores crude helium -- is about 15 miles northwest of Amarillo.

Workers there retrieve helium and pump it to customers connected to a nearly 450-mile pipeline that stretches from the Texas Panhandle through Oklahoma and to Kansas.

"Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, but here on Earth, it's rather rare," said Dr. Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a University of Cambridge chemist, who recently warned that the end of helium may be near. "Most people guess that we extract helium from the air, but actually we dig it out of the ground."

Some projections show there are about 11 billion cubic feet of helium at the North Texas facility -- less than half what was once there. Workers there have said they likely won't be able to sell off all the helium by 2015, but 2020 might be a reasonable target.

"Aside from being used to fill balloons, both for our entertainment, and for more serious purposes, such as for weather balloons, helium is used in other applications that depend on its unique properties," Wothers has said. "Being so light, and yet totally chemically inert, helium can be mixed with oxygen in order to make breathing easier. This mixture, known as heliox, can help save newborn babies with breathing problems, or help underwater divers safely reach the depths of the oceans.

"At minus 269 degrees centigrade, liquid helium has the lowest boiling point of any substance," he said. "Because of this, it is used to provide the low temperatures needed for superconducting magnets, such as those used in most MRI scanners in hospitals."

Several congressional leaders spoke out this year in support of proposals to prevent the helium reserve from closing soon.

"American manufacturing, high-tech and medical industries are already struggling to deal with helium shortages and cannot afford to have a devastating disruption in the market," Schumer said. "If Congress does not act quickly, the key job-creating industries will face very real economic troubles."

Recently, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., released a discussion draft of the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act -- geared to put in place "a common sense plan" to sell helium from the reserve "in a responsible manner."

"This bill is an opportunity for both sides of the aisle to come together and fix a problem that will have serious impacts on American jobs and the economy," Hastings said.