02/06/12 — A Valentine's Day without balloons?

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A Valentine's Day without balloons?

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on February 6, 2012 1:46 PM

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Krissy Ainsley fills a balloon with helium at Paper Place on Cashwell Drive Thursday. The store is one of only a few in Goldsboro that still have helium due to a scarcity of the gas.

Beth Worley fills a balloon with helium at Paper Place on Cashwell Drive, just as she’s done countless times before as manager of the party supply store.

Around her float nearly one hundred other pink balloons that have been ordered for a Relay for Life event, but the number of balloons hides the fact that what she is doing is now becoming a rare ability as supplies of helium shrink here at the end of the supply chain.

And Mrs. Worley knows it.

A sign on the door proudly declares the store has helium, differentiating it with other florists and party shops in the city whose suppliers haven’t been able to get them helium for weeks.

Mrs. Worley managed to find a supplier after the one the store had worked with for decades told her they were no longer a priority.

“The only people that were getting helium were medical and machinery,” she said, saying she heard those industries were paying double to get their helium supplies. “We were actually told some kind of plant in Texas that blew up was the reason for the shortage.”

But there had been subtle hints that something was wrong for some time, she said, noting that the price of helium had risen four times in the past year, leading her at one time to raise her prices by a dime.

On East Ash Street, Pat Kiewert, owner of Flowers For You, said her warning of the impending helium crisis came from a customer who had tried everywhere in town to buy balloons.

That was three weeks ago, when the flower shop’s helium supply was nearly gone.

Mrs. Kiewert said she hadn’t had a delivery since and was turned away from other helium distributors who said they couldn’t accept new customers. She had to personally go out of town to buy helium tanks in advance of Valentine’s Day, when she said balloons make up about half of all her sales.

While birthdays and anniversaries tend to be spread throughout the year, she said, Valentine’s Day is when helium balloons are most in demand.

“We’ve had customers every day this week and we’ve had to turn them away,” she said. “We’ve never had this in 10 years.”

An element that has been used to inflate Valentines, cool MRI machines and occasionally by children to give themselves high-pitched voices is now becoming a rare commodity on earth.

And that’s not just hot air.


Fourteen years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics for his team’s discovery of superfluidity in the isotope helium-3, Robert Richardson spoke at the 60th meeting of Nobel Laureates on the helium shortage in 2010.

In a video of the lecture, available through the Nobel Laureate Lindau meetings website, Richardson said the scarcity of helium could be attributed to a single act of federal legislation in the mid-1990s that set off the chain reaction leading to where the helium market is today.

In that lecture he explained how the world’s helium supply, at current usage rates, would be gone in 25 years.

All of the helium on earth took 4.7 billion years to be created and it’s scheduled to be all gone 150 years after its discovery.


According to a report in 2000 by the Committee on the Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve, the United States set up the National Helium Reserve in Texas in 1925 with the intention of using the massive gas reserves — the U.S. has, by far, the largest supply of the gas on earth — to supply its military airships during wartime and for use with commercial air travel during peacetime.

That, however, didn’t last long as the military’s love affair with the blimp deflated, leaving the U.S. sitting on the world’s largest reserve without a military purpose for it.

When the cooling abilities of liquid helium began to make the gas more lucrative, again, use in the United States skyrocketed. The Space Race pushed demand to all-time highs as the gas’s cryogenic uses expanded to include coolant for rocket fuel and to cool superconductor magnets, such as those used in MRIs in hospitals.

By 1996, however, Congress decided it wanted to get out of the helium trade — fast.

According to the report, the nation was $1.4 billion in debt from its helium business, so legislation was drawn up directing the U.S. to sell off its reserve on a straight-line basis, meaning the supplies are to be sold off as cheaply and quickly as possible so long as the federal government breaks even on its near-century of investment.

That breakneck speed has resulted in the dumping of nearly all of the 600 million cubic feet of helium owned by the United States into the helium market since the act went into effect Jan. 1, 2005, saturating the market and driving helium prices down to “ridiculously cheap” levels, Richardson said.

The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 contained stipulations that a study must be done in the years leading up to the beginning of the sale — in 2005 — to assure the selling off of the reserve wouldn’t impact the helium market.

That report in 2000 by the Committee on the Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve, formed by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, predicted there would be no issues.

“Based on the information assembled for this report,” it reads, “the committee believes that the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 will not have a substantial impact on helium users.”

But in his 2010 address, Richardson noted the study was too premature to effectively gauge what the impact would be.

“It was too early to tell the consequences of the forced selling of the gas,” he said.

The committee, apparently, agreed.

It issued in 2010 a new report, stating “selling off the helium reserve, as required by the 1996 Act, has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of U.S. taxpayers or the country.”


The reasoning behind the committee’s about face on the issue was the amount of helium being sold, which, in comparison to global demand, was enormous. The selling price of the helium, set in 1996 and not subject to changes in the market, was also detrimental to the market, as the committee’s report stated the federally owned helium “dominates, if not actually controls, the price for crude helium worldwide.”

But what’s the issue with cheap helium?

Well, for one, straight line selling the gas is a poor way for the government to make its money back, Richardson said in his 2010 lecture, adding the U.S. would be better served selling off its helium gradually at market price.

But the low price also made helium recycling a less lucrative practice, meaning larger consumers of the gas for cooling purposes, like NASA, released the helium into the atmosphere, where it’s incredibly expensive to extract helium from.

Now, with the writing on the wall, helium distributors have had to ration the gas like never before, granting it to research and medical purposes while party balloons and welding projects are left on the shelf.


Michael Lane, store manager of Goldsboro’s Machining and Welding branch which provides helium to welders, florists and party supply stores alike, said his store is only just able to fill its orders.

“Right now we’re at 50 percent. We’re getting 50 percent of our allocation,” he said last week. “As far as our customers — we’re just barely keeping our customers in stock. All the way from a guy filling up balloons to welders, we’re getting calls all day long from customers.”

With 23 stores in the state, though, he said his company is being proactive, looking for new suppliers to lessen the impact on customers at the end of the supply chain.

But the grim reality is that the helium shortage is real, and scientists and others would do well to begin researching alternatives said Larry Silverberg, associate head of North Carolina State University’s aerospace engineering department.

“It is a big deal,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things there are other things that are a lot more (important) but it is real.”

And its impact will be felt all over the research community, he said, as even projects that don’t use liquid helium for its cooling purposes use helium balloons, such as the aerospace program’s flying projects that involve directing upwards of 20 balloons with laptop controls.

“What are we going to do when we’re out of helium? We’re going to have to adapt,” he said.

Luckily other fields in the research community are already ahead of that curve.

Alex Smirnov, a chemistry professor at N.C. State, said he remembers when helium, now selling at about $10 per liter, was selling at one-fifth of today’s price.

The rise in price and his knowledge about the helium reserve’s fate led him to encourage using new technologies in chemistry that use renewable resources, like electricity, and today his laboratories use hardly any helium, except when it’s not economically feasible.

Smirnov explained that the isotope helium-3, which is a byproduct of nuclear weapon storage and can also be found on the moon, can be substituted for high-level cooling experiments in the future, but its price and volatility mean it won’t work for balloons.

Putting it bluntly, Smirnov explained the way the helium priority stacked up:

“If you have more MRI systems, then the florist is out of luck,” he said.


Wayne Memorial Hospital’s radiology department hasn’t felt an impact from the shortage because the helium used in MRI machines is self-contained. It can be used over, and is recycled

“Our magnets are cooled in helium and they stay active all the time. It recirculates in there so we don’t lose any,” Malcolm Hinton, the director of radiology said. “It doesn’t bother us at all.”

The department’s chances of buying another machine in the near future are also not likely, he said, meaning the consumers feeling the pinch the most in Wayne County will be those just trying to send balloon greetings.

Argon, another noble gas that can be used for welding and refrigeration, can be used as an alternative in some uses, but several in the academic community have called for price increases and other conservation tactics to help stave off the complete depletion of the gas, which is not only rare in the atmosphere, but extremely expensive to exract from it.

“It’s better to raise the price by the factor of 20 now to discourage frivolous use rather than by a factor of 10,000 in 25 years,” said Robert Richardson, a leading physicist in the study of helium, in a 2010 lecture.

Until then, Mrs. Worley and other florists remain confident, continuing to fill orders as best they can, despite the scarcity of helium.

“No matter how bad the economy gets, people will throw a party,” Mrs. Worley said. “If there’s a way to blow up a balloon, they’re going to blow it up.”