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Archive for Monday, February 13, 2012

Short supply of helium not expected to deflate Valentine’s Day balloons

February 13, 2012

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Without it, heart-shaped balloons would fall flat this Valentine’s Day.

But don’t worry. Local retailers loaded up early on helium, which is fast becoming a hot commodity.

The floral shop at Hy-Vee, 3504 Clinton Parkway, planned several months in advance just to ensure they’d have enough helium to keep the romantics happy and the balloons flying.

“We’ve been stockpiling,” said store manager Andrew Yochum. “Whatever we can get our hands on.”

Retailers across the country face a similar situation, as supplies of helium have dwindled during the past few years, said Marty Fish, executive director of the Wichita-based International Balloon Association.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for some retailers,” Fish said.

The helium supply has a long and complicated history in the United States, Fish said, dating back to World War II.

The United States built the infrastructure to manufacture and distribute helium and stored it away in Texas. But in recent years, those supplies have been bought by other interests and used in a variety of industries that take priority over retailers. For instance, helium is used in hospitals to cool MRI machines and for other medical research.

And no one in the United States is replacing the supply.

“What’s there is there,” Fish said.

That means the price goes up for retailers. A tank of helium that cost about $35 a tank in the 1990s is up over $70 today, depending on its location, Fish said.

That leaves retailers rationing what they can get, and sometimes adding just plain old air to their helium mix.

But Fish is optimistic that overseas suppliers will increase production.

“We have hope in the balloon industry that we’ll continue to get helium,” she said.

Comments

Eride 2 years, 7 months ago

Finite resource and we fetter it away filling balloons.

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blindrabbit 2 years, 7 months ago

A couple of comments: "And no one in the United States is replacing the supply" The only way to increase the supply is to convert the radioactive isotopes of hydrogen to helium as the result of a thermonuclear explosion (Hydrogen Bomb) or by harvesting from the nearest star (our sun). Neither seems workable without considerable negative outcomes, so maybe we ought to conserve what we have; helium has more value than filling vanity balloons which also create problems by adding plastics (mylar) and rubber to the environment. Originally, the Navy controlled supplies as it was a critical gas for use in blimps; not much need for that now since the German U-Boat danger has lessened somewhat. Of course, we could drill for more in the Hugoton area of Kansas, (our prime source now) but Kansas is now full of "hot air" since Smilin Sam has guided us to Brownbackistan.

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shaunepec 2 years, 7 months ago

By replacing, I was referring to the fact that no one in US is building the infrastructure needed to harvest more helium, as it is apparently an expensive process. From what I was told, they are doing so in Europe and Asia, and it's likely we'll be importing from them some day. Though, sounds like you have a more advanced knowledge of this than I.

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Eride 2 years, 7 months ago

The US has almost 50% of the total amount of helium deposits in the entire world (estimated). Most of the other large deposits outside of North America are in China and Russia. Helium is found solely in natural gas deposits (refer back to the location of the largest deposits of helium). The infrastructure for extracting is simple, that isn't the problem. It wouldn't be difficult to build that up as demand/supply requires. The problem is that the Helium has to be extracted while extracting natural gas deposits and that the market price of Helium is not high enough to justify the costs of the extraction process. This is true for Russia and China as well. The only reason they would even remotely be interested in extracting Helium is to prevent being reliant on the US as a source. Their governments will be spending billions subsidizing that because the cost of production will be much greater then the price of the Helium.

Some might wonder why the US isn't also subsidizing it? If Helium is so important why not spend tons of cash building up larger stock piles? Well, as you may have noticed, the US has many things it needs money for right now, future needs outside of our life times hardly will get the time of day. Another question would be storing all of the extracted Helium. Short-sighted? Probably. Helium is finite, the deposits in the ground are it, and there is no known substitutes for most of its uses. Between loosing it to the emptying of natural gas deposits and fettering it away in balloons there will be a day in the not so distant future when we wake up and find out how sc*rewed we really are.

The danger isn't a depletion of the US reserve. The danger is depleting the deposits. Using up the reserve doesn't do anything other than increase the price of the gas to the point it is feasible to extract. Instead of extracting zero helium while extracting natural gas we could just as easily be extracting enough helium to satisfy demand. This would have the double benefit of probably meaning it would be too expensive to waste on balloons. Technologically we cannot produce more helium. There is also no foreseeable way we would ever be able to produce enough of it. Even assuming at some point we actually invent a workable fusion-type power plant and have unlimited power we would not be able to produce enough helium to even satisfy a fraction of a percent of our current demand for helium.

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somedude20 2 years, 7 months ago

I did not watch my buddies die face down in the mud so this country would run out of helium!

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swampyankee 2 years, 7 months ago

true love is a helium balloon. so much for hoarding gold and silver. no birthday party wil be safe from my helium pirates

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