No up, up and away

By Nancy Black

What’s up (get it?) with the helium shortage? I stopped by a local party store this past week and was shocked to learn they were out of helium. What? How can a party store be out of helium? I had to found out.

Turns out, helium is used for a lot more than just balloons and making your voice sound funny when you breathe it in. “Because the gas is inert and has extreme melting and boiling points — both near absolute zero — scientists use it in cryogenics, high-energy accelerators, arc welding and silicon wafer manufacturing,” according to Popular Mechanics. 

“A severe reduction in the availability of helium could force hospitals to replace costly MRI magnets or restrict patient access to them.”

It also turns out that the United States federal government controls the price on helium. 

The Feds rose the price recently, and the spike in cost is threatening to create a helium shortage. 

Did you know that the Texas Panhandle is the helium capital of the U.S.? Who would have thunk? Evidently, Amarillo is home to the Federal Helium Reserve. 

“The government put it there back in 1925 because natural gas produced at the gas fields between Amarillo and Hugoton, Kan., has a very high helium concentration — up to 1.9 percent,” reporter Bobby Magill discovered.

“Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, most of it in the Earth’s atmosphere bleeds off into space,” Magill said. “Although other countries produce helium, the natural gas fields elsewhere around the globe are much less helium-rich than those near Amarillo.”

Congress tried to privatize the helium program 20 years ago, but it didn’t work. Private companies haven’t been too keen on getting into helium production, so now, years later, there is a shortage.

Who knew a simple party balloon was filled with so much bureaucratic hot air?