Does a Helium Shortage Mean the Party’s Over?

Impacts of a helium shortage could be far more significant than losing balloons

By Justin Franz

Ask anyone what helium is used for and you’re sure to come up with at least one common answer: balloons. But the colorless and odorless gas is used for much more than just bringing smiles to children’s faces. In fact, it’s used for everything from MRI machines to welding to filling car airbags.

But while helium might be among the most abundant elements in the universe — second only to hydrogen — we’re running out of it here on Earth. That means we may have to start rationing the element in the future.

“The helium that was previously used to blow up balloons might become a thing of the past,” said Gordon Moberley, Kalispell branch manager of Norco, a regional gas supplier.

Most of the world’s helium comes from Texas and the U.S. government holds much of the supply. Back in the 1920s, the government created the National Helium Reserve to stock up on the gas for airships. Later, it was used to cool nuclear reactors. But helium is not an infinite resource here on Earth and the government stockpile is slowly being depleted.

“Once helium is used and once it’s out there in the atmosphere, there’s just no practical way to recapture it,” said David Long, associate professor of chemistry at Flathead Valley Community College.

Long said helium is used in a number of medical and educational settings. Helium is used to keep the magnets in MRI machines cool. It’s needed to test drugs at crime labs. And it’s used in labs locally at FVCC for forensic and organic chemistry classes.

Other factors impacting the helium supply in recent years include a Saudi Arabian-led embargo against Qatar, the only other major producer of helium, back in 2017. The embargo only lasted a few weeks, but it sent shockwaves through the market. Trade publication Gas World reports that the supply of helium will only become more “fragile” in the future.

Moberley said because of the fragile helium supply, his company has to ensure that places like Kalispell Regional Healthcare gets first dibs on the gas. Mellody Sharpton, communications director for the hospital, said KRH uses helium for lung diffusion procedures and Intra-Aortic Balloon Pump machines, which are used to treat patients with cardiac issues.

Taylor Kiger, a manager at Woodland Floral and Gifts in Kalispell, said her shop still sells helium-filled balloons but that they have had to increase the price of them in recent years. In the last few years, the cost of a latex balloon has gone from $1 to $3 thanks to increasing helium costs.

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