Helium shortage in the air

Anna M. Tinsley / Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram /

Published Jan 5, 2013 at 04:00AM

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.

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

“I don’t know what I would do if they told me one day I couldn’t get any more.”

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 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 more focused on things like avoiding the “fiscal cliff” and preventing Bush-era tax cuts from expiring, 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 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.”

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