Party Stores Struggle To Stay Afloat During Helium Shortage

A helium shortage that’s been years in the making has local party businesses hurting for the natural gas. The element is used for a lot more than just party balloons, which is increasing demand for a dwindling supply. Balloon Emporium in Pasadena has been hit this year by the shortage. General manager Shane Sourgose said the store’s helium supplier hasn’t been able to fulfill a full order and deliver the tanks they need to meet demand. “Let’s say we order 50.They gave us half of our order,” Sourgose said. “Due to that scale-back we have to then scale back our operation. We had to regrettably deny clients that were looking for helium tank rentals and refills. But we did have a wait list.” Chemist Dr. Louise Huang at Azusa Pacific University says this is the third helium shortage in the last decade. The element is used in various ways including to cool the magnets used in MRI machines, to temper rocket fuel so it won’t burn or explode, to prevent decompression sickness in deep sea diving, for fiber optics, semiconductors, and blimps. “There are very significant and non-negotiable uses in medical and research facilities,” Dr. Huang said. “So those are the usages that are non-negotiable and of more concern than helium balloons.” As demand for helium increases, so does the need to prioritize how it’s used. “We can’t really produce or make more helium per se because it is actually a bi-product as natural gas mining occurs,” Dr. Huang said. Sourgose has been helping customers during the shortage by selling small helium tanks, and using air instead of helium for some balloon displays. Recently he’s been able to get more helium from his supplier, but still plans to conserve its use. “We still have to treat it like a rarity,” he said.

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Exploration In Western Canada Could Hold The Answer To The Global Helium Shortage

The world is currently experiencing its third major helium shortage in the past 14 years, putting science and industry at risk. Helium is a key gas used in industries like space exploration, health care and technology. While everyone is familiar with helium’s use in party balloons, the lighter-than-air element has many more important uses in semiconductor manufacturing, medical imaging and other technological applications. Helium is generated deep underground by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium over geological timescales. It gets trapped in non-porous rock formations. The only way to find helium is to drill exploration wells deep into the subsurface. Scientists are facing a number of new challenges to get a reliable supply of helium for their research programs. The shortage has consistently raised helium prices; research applications like gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy take a backseat to helium needs in health care.

A global helium shortage has affected several industries, including entertainment, health care, technology, education and research.

I am the principal investigator for a research group that has been involved with sampling and analysis of some of the recently drilled helium wells in Saskatchewan.

New helium sources

With no guarantee of a steady supply, the cost of helium used for research has increased over 15 per cent over the past four years when buying individual tanks of gas. At these prices, universities have been forced to ration due to a lack of supply, while wholesale prices have risen to $500 or more for bulk supply. Over the past few years, a number of start-up companies have been successful in new exploration and production efforts in Western Canada. An American company opened the first new helium production facility in Canada in 2016 since Canadian Helium stopped production from their plant near Swift Current, Sask., in the early 1970s. Calgary-based North American Helium has also been active on the exploration front, with six successful wells completed as of last summer. That company has over one million acres of helium permits and leases and is preparing for the construction of its first production plant. A number of companies have been bringing smaller-scale production online in the United States for the last few decades, but even with an existing discovery, it takes years to develop a well from concept to plant. With production and sales from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management helium reserve coming to an end, there is a need for new North American helium production. The industry has relied on discoveries made by companies exploring for oil in the 1960s, including three fields in Saskatchewan. Only recently have companies started drilling exploration wells targeting helium.

The Saskatchewan advantage

What makes the helium resource in Western Canada so attractive is the gas composition itself, which differs from other helium resources in other parts of the world. These have high levels of carbon dioxide or methane, but the helium wells in Western Canada are associated with underground reservoirs of nitrogen gas. Because nitrogen is benign and already makes up 78 per cent of Earth’s atmosphere, these projects don’t require large pipelines for methane recovery or carbon dioxide disposal. Extracting this resource will have a much smaller environmental footprint in Canada.

Graduate student Karly Dominato on a helium drilling project in Saskatchewan in the fall of 2018. Scott Mundle, Author provided

Western Canada has another huge advantage over other areas with potential for helium exploration, like central Australia or Siberia. All of the major recent historical helium discoveries in Canada, are in areas that have already seen significant oil and gas development. This means that the growing helium exploration industry can piggyback on decades of investment by oil and gas companies, such as existing seismic data and well control. What is also likely contributing to higher levels of investment and activity is the proven nature of the opportunity for helium extraction and the maturity of the exploration industry. Western Canada also hosts a huge and capable oil-service sector, providing the skills, expertise and tools to get wells drilled and brought online in a timely fashion. In other jurisdictions seeing interest for helium exploration, such as Tanzania in East Africa, whether due to financial constraints or the lack of an oil service sector, none of the companies targeting helium in East Africa have yet to successfully drill a helium production well. With a nascent helium exploration and production industry reaching maturity, multiple companies active in the area, a small environmental footprint and attractive economics, Western Canada is now poised to become a leader in the future production of helium. These new explorers are well positioned to fill the supply gap.

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Battle Of The Elements: Helium’s Crucial Role In Physics

Which is your favourite chemical element? To mark the International Year of the Periodic Table, our science journalists will be arguing for their pick from the 118 known elements. In this instalment, Michael Banks highlights how helium leads to great discoveries and helps saves lives too

Helium is colourless, odourless, non-toxic and inert. At first glance it might sound like a rather dull element. Yet helium is anything but — it is quite simply the life-blood of physics. Helium is created in large quantities in stars through the fusion of hydrogen. On Earth it is the product of radioactive decay from uranium and thorium isotopes in the Earth’s crust and can be found trapped underground in natural gas reservoirs. Helium is non-renewable — once released from the ground as a mixture with natural gas, it escapes into the atmosphere. Shortages of helium, therefore, have become regular occurrences in recent years after uses of the gas have expanded meaning it remains an expensive and precious commodity. Despite this, helium is still an essential component of many physics experiments. Its cooling properties are used to chill materials to near absolute zero allowing their fascinating properties to be studied. Helium is also used to cool superconducting magnets that are used in many big-science facilities, especially high-energy physics. For example, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider required 130 tonnes of the stuff to chill the 27 km-circumference accelerator to 1.9 K. Away from basic science, helium also plays a critical role in healthcare by cooling the magnets in magnetic resonance imaging machines and is used in the manufacture of microchips and optical fibres. My first encounter with helium — besides the odd birthday-party balloon — was during my PhD. Each week I went to the on-site liquefier to collect a 100-litre dewar of liquid helium and pushed it back to my lab where it was used to cool a cryostat to measure the heat capacity of different materials. It was during this time when I became aware of its fascinating low-temperature properties. The most common isotope of helium is helium-4, which consists of two neutrons and two protons. Helium has only one other naturally-occurring isotope — helium-3 (containing two protons and one neutron). In the Earth’s atmosphere there is one helium-3 atom for around every million helium-4 atoms. Both isotopes of helium share one bizarre property: superfluidity. Below 4.2 K, helium-4 becomes a liquid but then at 2.17 K it is a superfluid, allowing it to flow without losing kinetic energy. This allows it to literally climb up walls. The unusual physics of helium has led to many Nobel prizes in physics, highlighting its importance to the field. Lev Landau shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physics for developing the theoretical framework of superfluidity while Pyotr Kapitsa shared the 1978 Nobel prize for his experimental work on the superfluidity of helium-4, which he carried out in the late 1930s. The discovery of superfluidity in helium-3 at 2.49 mK in the early 1970s led to the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physics being awarded to David Lee, Douglas Osheroff and Robert Richardson while in 2003 Anthony Leggett shared that year’s prize for his theoretical work on helium-3. Helium not only has fascinating properties and is crucial when it comes to great discoveries in physics, but it is also the stuff of stars and helps saves lives too.

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Humanity Is Thoughtlessly Wasting An Essential, Non-Renewable Resource: Helium

The most common use of helium in the world is to fill single-use balloons with it, as demonstrated by the vendors shown here in Warsaw, Poland. There is a global helium shortage, and every single act of wastefulness such as this not only makes the problem worse, it permanently removes the used helium from the Earth entirely.

There’s a natural resource found beneath Earth’s surface that’s been building up for hundreds of millions of years. It plays a pivotal role in some of society’s most important scientific and medical applications, from MRI machines to superconductivity to particle accelerators to the creation of the strongest magnetic fields on Earth. There is no known substitute for this unique resource; it’s truly irreplaceable. There is no good way to synthesize this essential ingredient in any sort of substantial quantity, either. We have only what has naturally built up over our planet’s natural geologic history. The resource in question? The lightest inert gas found in nature: helium. Instead of mining, storing, and distributing it for these much-needed medical and scientific uses, we’re squandering it on balloons and squeaky voices. Here’s why that wastefulness must end.

There’s an extensive network of helium plants and pipelines located above where the United States has a naturally rich store of helium, but if we don’t conserve it, we are dooming ourselves to a future where we simply live in a state where we have insufficient helium resources. It will take hundreds of millions of years for Earth to replenish its helium stores naturally.

When helium was discovered on Earth, its unique properties immediately lent itself to a myriad of scientific uses. As a lighter-than-air gas, it could be used for buoyancy or even levitation. Since it’s both non-reactive and inert, it can be used at high temperatures and in oxygen-rich environments without a risk of explosion. The speed of sound is almost three times greater in helium than in air, leading to acoustic applications. Perhaps most importantly, at atmospheric pressure but at low temperatures, it liquefies but never solidifies, making it the ultimate coolant for particle accelerators, MRI machines, and superconductors. At low enough temperatures, helium even becomes a superfluid: an ultra-rare state of matter that exhibits no friction or viscosity. A superfluid in motion will remain in motion forever, with no energy losses to slow it down.

Helium’s unique elemental properties, such as its liquid nature at extremely low temperatures and its superfluidic properties, make it well-suited to a series of scientific applications that no other element or compound can match. The superfluid helium shown here is dripping because there is no friction in the fluid to keep it from creeping up the sides of the container and spilling over, which it does spontaneously.

Yet helium, despite being the second most abundant element in the Universe as a whole, is extremely limited in abundance here on the surface of the Earth. The second lightest element in the periodic table, it’s named for Helios, the ancient Greek sun god, because it was discovered on the Sun, spectroscopically, before it was ever found on Earth. It was only discovered terrestrially in 1882, where we saw that same, unique spectral line in the lava flowing from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A few years later, scientists were able to isolate helium in a laboratory by chemically treating igneous rocks, separating the noble gases from the atoms they were bound together with. It might seem surprising that such a common ingredient in the Universe is so rare on Earth, but with a little science, it’s easy to see why.

A modern high-field clinical MRI scanner, which achieves magnetic fields of 3 Tesla. Those field strengths can only be achieved with superconducting magnets, which necessitate the use of liquid helium. MRI machines are the largest medical or scientific use of helium today.

In the early stages of the Solar System, helium was incredibly abundant. The giant molecular cloud of gas that collapsed and fragmented to give rise to our Sun and planets was composed mostly of hydrogen (70%) and helium (28%), with only small amounts of all the other elements. The majority of that mass was gravitationally drawn to the center, into what would eventually become our Sun, while most of the rest was distributed in a protoplanetary disk. As the planets began to grow and take shape, gravity pulled all of the elements into those massive clumps, including hydrogen and helium. Because of the way that density works, the heaviest elements sank to the core while the lightest elements wound up in the top layers of the crust and atmosphere. On the gas giant worlds, there was enough mass to hold onto the hydrogen and helium, but they didn’t stand a chance on Earth.

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk, where planets and planetesimals form first, creating ‘gaps’ in the disk when they do. As soon as the central proto-star gets hot enough, it begins blowing off the lightest elements from the surrounding protoplantary systems. A planet like Jupiter or Saturn has enough gravity to hold onto the lightest elements like hydrogen and helium, but a lower-mass world like Earth does not.

Helium is lighter than all the other gases composing Earth’s atmosphere, and as a result it rises to the very top of the exosphere: the border between Earth’s most tenuous atoms and the vacuum of space itself. At these great altitudes, a strong kick from either sunlight or a solar wind particle is enough to propel a helium atom past its escape velocity, ejecting it from Earth forever. Although Earth was formed with helium in great abundance, it was largely ejected from our planet long ago. The remaining helium fraction of our atmosphere is a paltry 0.00052%. Instead, the way nature forms helium on Earth is deep inside the planet, where the heaviest elements reside.

The layers of Earth’s interior are well-defined and understood thanks to seismology and other geophysical observations. Far beneath the crust, heavy elements such as radium, thorium and uranium exist in great abundance. Their radioactive decays generate approximately 50% of the internal heat of the Earth (with the other half coming from gravitational contraction), and it is these decays that build up our underground helium supplies over geologic timescales.

While most of what composes Earth is stable — elements like iron, nickel, silicon, oxygen, sulphur, lead and more — there are a few notable exceptions, and they exist in greater abundance the closer to the core we look. Elements like radium, thorium and uranium, while they might compose less than 1% of the Earth, are responsible for approximately half the energy produced by our planet’s interior.The way they produce it is through the physics encoded by Einstein’s greatest equation: E = mc2. These elements are made of atomic nuclei that are so heavy, they’re inherently unstable. Given enough time, they’ll radioactively decay, converting a tiny fraction of their mass into energy when they do via that exact rule, E = mc2. The most common pathway for their decay is by the emission of an α particle, made of two protons and two neutrons.

An alpha-decay is a process where a heavier atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle (helium nucleus), resulting in a more stable configuration and releasing energy. When this decay happens deep underground, the alpha particles can recombine with two electrons, building up stores of neutral helium over long enough periods of time.

If you know your periodic table, you might recognize that an α particle is identical to a helium nucleus. Even though many of these unstable atoms have half-lives of a billion years or more, the Earth is more than four billion years old. Deep within the Earth, the decay of these heavy elements means that our entire planet is a very slow helium factory. On the timescale of a human lifespan, the helium produced by radioactive decays is completely negligible. It takes hundreds of millions of years to produce any substantial quantities of helium underground. They build up where veins of these elements have been deposited, and lead to enormous underground reservoirs of helium. Once it’s extracted, we’d have to wait hundreds of millions of years again for these stores to replenish themselves.

A helium extraction facility in Amarillo, TX. Any helium that leaves the plant floats to the top of the atmosphere, where it’s likely to interact with sunlight and wind up in interplanetary space.

So, how do we manage this resource? The answer is, “not at all.” Even as our reliance on liquid helium rises, as medical diagnostics involving large-magnitude magnetic fields and requiring liquid helium become more routine, we have no long-term plan for the irreplaceable stores of helium on Earth. The National Helium Reserve is in constant danger of simply being auctioned off, as its current mandate to maintain a vast store of helium expires just two years from now. The worldwide situation isn’t any better. Only 14 plants mine and refine helium globally, and half of them are in the United States. We are now experiencing our third global helium shortage since the dawn of the 21st century, and the first one since an enormous new store of natural helium was found in Tanzania in 2016. The status quo — where the vast majority of helium used is wasted on one-time frivolities such as balloons and birthday parties — cannot be maintained.

A 2016 study conducted by the scientific research community sought to address the global helium shortage by recommending a series of steps focused on increased production, helium recycling, and worldwide conservation of this natural resource. As of 2019, it is clear that we have not taken substantial steps towards these ends.

According to a 2016 study conducted by the American Physical Society and the Bureau of Land Management, the price of lab-ready helium rose from $5 per liter in 2010 to more than $16 per liter in 2013, and commercial helium prices have risen concurrent with that. Yet the stories you’re reading aren’t about the scientific and societal impacts, which include:

– rising prices for MRIs and other medical diagnostics,
– the increased cost of doing essential scientific research that depends on liquid helium,
– the issue that we will exhaust our terrestrial helium supply entirely in less than 200 years,
– and the most egregious fact: the planned privatization of the federal helium supply will only hasten the
frivolous wasting of this precious and irreplaceable resource.

Instead, the only story making the news is that Party City, which is known as the best place to buy helium balloons, is closing 5% of its stores because of the helium shortage.

Every time we fill a single balloon with helium, we are damning practically all of the helium atoms present within that balloon to a fate where they escape from Earth’s atmosphere. In mere decades, we are exhausting a natural supply that took billions of years to build up. Every time you fill a single balloon with helium, you’re taking approximately 3 × 10^23 helium atoms, generated over billions of years on Earth, and removing them from the planet. As a species, we are undoing our planet’s entire history of helium production with just a few decades of misuse. You’re making scientific and medical research and applications harder and more expensive to perform. And you’re contributing to and exacerbating a global helium shortage that is already a dire situation. The other options for harvesting it, such as mining other worlds for it or extracting it from the atmosphere, are astronomically expensive by comparison. We get a one-time shot on Earth to extract and preserve the helium beneath our surface. Every atom we lose due to frivolity is another atom we’ll someday be forced to harvest in a much more difficult and resource-intensive fashion. Helium might be abundant in the Universe, but it’s rare and precious on Earth. It’s about time we started acting like it.

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3 Helium Stocks to Watch on Extreme Supply Shortages

The junior Canadian helium stocks we’ve identified will likely be forced to adjust their strategy as helium scarcity becomes more and more of a global issue

Apart from party balloons, helium can be used for a variety of important uses, such as MRI magnets, fiber optic cables, microscopes, airbags, blimps, and computer chips. Party City announced recently that it will be closing 45 stores due to a helium shortage. The earth’s crust emits small amounts of helium, where it can be found in underground deposits, trapped in certain types of rocks (granitoid basement rocks). Most of these rocks containing helium can be found in the United States, specifically Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The U.S. accounts for more than 70% of the world’s helium production. However, with the U.S. rapidly selling off its helium reserve supply, and the earth’s atmosphere losing helium faster and faster, it is inevitable that we will run out of this non-renewable resource eventually. On a brighter note, today we have identified three Canadian helium stocks that specialize in either management of helium properties or the exploration of the gas itself. These companies will be under pressure in the coming years to adjust due to the diminishing supply of helium. Look to see how these businesses alter their strategy and differentiate themselves as the depletion of the global supply of helium forces them to change.

Share prices as at close Tuesday, May 14, 2019, data obtained from S&P Capital IQ



American Helium Inc. (TSXV:AHE) – $0.09
Oil and Gas Exploration and Production

American Helium is a Canada-based helium exploration and property development company that develops helium assets across North America. AHE explores for helium on its acreage, which covers approximately 17,000 acres. American Helium Inc generally serves the healthcare, military, nuclear, electronics, aviation, and research sectors with its helium supply. Recently, AHE stated its difficulties in raising enough capital to continue planned acquisition, exploration, and development within the helium energy sector, and has decided to exit the industry.

Market Cap: $3.5 Million
YTD Return: 12.5%
Average 90 Day Trading Volume: 140,000



Royal Helium Ltd. (TSXV:RHC) – $0.015
Oil and Gas Exploration and Production

Royal Helium is a Canada-based company engaged in the exploration and evaluation of helium & other natural gas reserve properties in North America. Currently, RHC does not have any active exploration, development or production projects, and is in the process of examining business opportunities and is evaluating suitable assets or businesses to acquire or merge with.

Market Cap: $2.3 Million
YTD Returns: 0%
Average 90 Day Trading Volume: 110,000



Desert Mountain Energy Corporation (TSXV:DME) – $0.18
Diversified Metals and Mining

Desert Mountain Energy is a Canada-based exploratory resource company, engaged in exploration and development of mineral and helium properties in Canada. The Company is an owner of a United States-based subsidiary named Desert Energy Corp, which is commencing exploration and development of oil & gas and mineral properties in the southwestern United States. Desert Mountain Energy is currently focused on development of its Yellowjacket Gold Mining Project in Atlin, BC, which covers an aggregate of approximately 291.5 square kilometers.

Market Cap: $6.6 Million
YTD Return: -18.2%
Average 90 Day Trading Volume: 40,000
Disclosure: Neither the author nor his family own shares in any of the companies mentioned above.

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