As helium supply shrinks, its price hits the stratosphere

  • Article by: ANNA M. TINSLEY , Fort Worth Star-Telegram
  • Updated: January 6, 2013 - 3:30 PM

The Federal Helium Reserve in Texas is running low on gas.

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A global helium shortage has caused the price of a tank to fill balloons to triple. The cost of running MRI units and making computer chips has also increased.

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

Prices for the helium she needs 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.

"The more prices go up, the less people are able to get it. Thank goodness I can still get it," she said.

Freeman is among the many florists and balloonists nationwide finding it harder to do business because the supply of helium -- a tasteless, odorless, colorless gas that inflates balloons and cools MRI machines -- is not just getting more costly, but also harder to find.

Texas is home to the country's 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 avoiding budget sequesters and the looming debt-ceiling debate, preventing the helium shortage from getting worse may not be a top priority, even though Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "We cannot let our national helium supply float away."

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

The bulk of the world's helium supply -- which also is used in medical scanners, LCD screens, welding, electronics, metals, fiber optics, 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 medical purposes, research and defense.

Although various sites in Texas supplied helium through the years, the only 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 Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a chemist at the University of Cambridge in England. He recently warned that the end of abundant supplies of helium may be near.

Some projections show that there are about 11 billion cubic feet of helium at the North Texas facility -- less than half what was once there.

"Being so light, and yet totally chemically inert, helium can be mixed with oxygen in order to make breathing easier,'' said Wothers. "This mixture, known as heliox, can help save newborn babies with breathing problems, or help underwater divers safely reach the depths of the oceans.''

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

"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."

Just 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."

When only 3 billion cubic feet of helium remains, the last of it would be used for "federal national security and scientific needs," according to Hastings' proposal.

Government officials have said an undetermined amount of helium is available through private industry, and it also is being processed in Wyoming and overseas sites such as Australia, the Middle East, Russia, Algeria and Qatar.

Many dollar and grocery stores no longer carry helium tanks to sell helium-filled balloon. And those who are still in the business are definitely feeling a pinch.

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.

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