Festive party balloons may soon be harder to come by. A nationwide helium shortage is making tanks of the lighter-than-air gas used to fill balloons more expensive. It’s changing the way one Texoma retailer does business. “We would usually be able to take balloon orders like for other days and everything, but we couldn’t do that any more… we can only do walk-ins,” said Wendy McGriff, manager of Wally’s Party Factory in Sherman.
The helium shortage appears to be caused by sanctions on overseas supplies and lower U.S. production. What helium is available is prioritized for military and medical use. Party City’s website says the shortage is having an impact on order fulfillment at some stores in that chain. Wally’s Party Factory is changing its balloon-filling policy. “We were able to do like outside balloons,” McGriff said. “If people ordered them online, they were able to bring them in, but we can’t do that anymore.” She added that some customers thought the new policy was a hoax. “It’s really serious,” McGriff said. “They’re having a hard time finding helium for us sometimes.” Helium is used in MRI devices, but local hospitals we checked with said the shortage has not yet had an impact.
If you’ve visited a party supply store recently you may have seen a sign saying “out of helium.” There’s a helium shortage across the country, including South Florida. Just weeks before the New Year’s celebrations, there is absolutely no helium at the Party City located on Pines Boulevard, just west of I-75 in Pembroke Pines. We spoke with a customer named Hilla about the shortage. She told us she was in Orlando a few days before where they were rationing the gas. “All they allowed us to inflate was one. They said we could not inflate two because of the shortage of helium,” Hilla said. While we associate helium with party balloons, the natural gas is used in the medical field in things like MRI machines. So, when there’s a shortage, distributors give the medical field the priority over balloons. The federal government’s Bureau of Land Management or BLM operates the nation’s Helium Program. It used to provide 40 percent of the helium in the U.S., but after its last auction in July, it is no longer selling helium to private companies. A change in federal law mandated the agency get out of the business when supply hit a certain point. Joseph Peterson, BLM’s assistant field manager, told NBC6 that companies have been finding alternate sources of helium. He said many are getting the gas from the biggest supplier in the Middle East, Qatar but according to him, “global economic uncertainty” is preventing helium from getting here as fast as it’s needed. Peterson added it’s really not a helium shortage, but more like a “supply imbalance.” He said there was a shortage before in 2012 and eventually the helium will get to normal supply. Red Balloon Party Rental is one of several South Florida event companies affected by the shortage. “We are struggling as decorators that we use helium balloons, very popular nowadays, and we need to find alternatives using air to do our decorations,” said Red Balloon’s Brigitte Chio Acosta. The company has gotten creative to find ways to make balloon arrangements that don’t require helium. Decorators instead use rods and magnets to hold up balloons. Party City told us in a statement:
“The shortage of helium supplies has impacted many industries. While Party City isn’t immune to these challenges, we are working aggressively with our supply partners and regularly receive helium replenishment to serve our customers in stores.”
NBC6 also found some Dollar Tree stores out of helium. However, we found one location with helium. We saw several customers walking away with fully inflated party balloons at the The Dollar Tree on 158th and Pines Boulevard. NBC6 asked Dollar Tree to comment about the shortage but didn’t hear back.
There isn’t much helium on planet Earth, however: just a few parts-per-million. The problem is that the helium nucleus is so light that our Earth’s gravity cannot hold it. Once helium enters our atmosphere, it escapes into the vacuum of space, lost from Earth, swept along with the solar wind. With a nuclear mass of just four — two protons and two neutrons — helium is a very stable element. Some of helium’s most vital properties for our purposes is that it is chemically inert and nonreactive, it is nonflammable, nonpoisonous, and, most importantly, it boils at 4.2 Kelvin, or minus 268 degrees Celsius, which is near absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible in the universe. No other element can remain a liquid at these temperatures. There is simply no other material with helium’s unique properties available to us at this time. For many industrial applications, there is no substitute for relatively inexpensive helium. It is vital in aerospace and defense technologies, high-tech manufacturing, rocket engine testing, welding, commercial diving, magnets in particle accelerators, the production of fiber optic cables, and semi-conductor chips found in your cell phone. However, it turns out that the single biggest use of helium is to support our medical imaging industry, specifically magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, and high-end material analytics take advantage of very high magnetic fields to make the nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy measurements. Those fields would not be possible to generate without liquid helium’s ultra-low boiling point.
Spiderman helium balloon at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade®
Linde will supply 300,000 cubic feet of helium to lift the balloons at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade® in New York on 22nd November. It is the 24th year in a row the gas giant has supplied helium for the event that marks the official beginning of the holiday season.
This year’s Parade will feature 16 giant characters’ balloons and more than 35 legacy/novelty creations. “We’re thrilled to support and partner with Macy’s for this iconic event,” said Chris Ebeling, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Linde. “To see people of all ages marveling at the balloons and sharing their delight continues to bring great happiness to everyone at Linde.” The helium that will fill the balloons begins its journey at Linde’s plant in Otis, Kansas, where it is purified and liquefied. It is then shipped to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Linde operates a helium trans-fill facility. The liquefied helium is converted to a gas at Bethlehem and compressed into four high–pressure tube trailers that are trucked to New York City. The day before the Parade, staff of Linde and Macy’s will assemble near the Museum of Natural History where workers begin inflating the balloons using a gas-filling apparatus Linde has customised for the Parade. “Our collaboration with Linde has helped delight a generation, or two, of spectators. Every Thanksgiving, more than 3.5 million spectators lining the Parade route and more than 50 million watching on television marvel at our signature helium balloons as they soar above New York thanks to our long-standing partnership with Linde,” said Susan Tercero, executive producer of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Industrial gasses company Air Products and Algeria’s Sonatrach have signed two gas production and delivery agreements to recover helium from Sonatrach’s LNG facilities.
Through the deal, Sonatrach will recover helium from two existing liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities (GL1Z and GL3Z), and that helium will be delivered to HELIOS’ existing liquid helium plant in Arzew. HELIOS is a joint venture of the two companies and the deals conducted through the JV have a combined value of $100 million. The new feedstock will increase the amount of liquid helium produced by the JV plant.
Another component of Air Products’ and Sonatrach’s agreement is that Air Products will design and build, and HELIOS will own and operate, two new air separation plants in Algeria. One will be located in the Hassi Messaoud District, with the second in Arzew. Once in operation, these plants will produce nitrogen, oxygen and argon, which will be supplied to the Algerian and Maghreb markets through Sonatrach’s unit, COGIZ.