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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steve Nielsen, owner of Balloon Bonanza, sets up columns of air-filled balloons he now uses more of because of the national shortage of helium, before the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk at Sugarhouse Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, October 13, 2012.
Helium shortage weighs on users big and small
Commodities » From party balloons to machinery, government’s hold on prices has an impact.
First Published Oct 26 2012 06:44 pm • Last Updated Feb 07 2013 11:32 pm

The helium used in today’s party balloons first caught the attention of the U.S. Army during World War I when the lighter-than-air gas was seen as the safest way to keep giant airships afloat.

Since the days of military dirigibles, the federal government has controlled the U.S. helium market. But now private demand is outstripping federal needs, causing an artificial spike in prices and a shortage that is having an impact on everything from birthday gatherings to the most sophisticated machinery in Utah and beyond.

At a glance

A look at helium

Uses » MRI magnet cooling, medical lasers , aerospace arc welding, computer chip manufacturing

Produced » From natural gas deposits mostly in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas; Utah production has been halted

Properties » An inert, nonflammable, nontoxic gas; coldest liquid known, doesn’t become radioactive

Availability » Supplies are tight due to government controls and congressional inaction on potential remedies; older helium plants are not producing at full capacity, and new ones have been delayed.

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Neither issue can be corrected until new plants come online or until Congress acts on a stalled bill that addresses helium supplies controlled by the federal government. With the political gridlock in Washington, action soon seems unlikely.

Helium for party balloons, perhaps the use of the gas consumers notice most, actually accounts for only a small percentage of demands. It also is used as a supercoolant in nuclear reactors and in aerospace arc welding and computer chip manufacturing.

Other applications cover a range of devices, from cooling lasers and MRI machines to being included in backpack systems used to detect dirty bombs. It also is vital for heart catheterization methods. At this point, supplies of helium appear adequate to meet medical needs but MRI manufacturers are worried that continued tight supplies could affect patient care by disrupting scanner service.

Limited supply • Other impacts have been more immediate.

Distributor Nikki Russell, owner of Arc Helium Supply in Salt Lake City, said he sometimes receives as little as 60 percent of the helium supplies he needs. And as a result, Russell said, ``we’re supplying only customers who have been with us for quite some time, not someone who calls us for balloons for an event or a wedding."

Customers big and small also are paying more. The crude helium price set by the federal government per thousand cubic feet was $64.75 two years ago. Today it’s posted at $84.

Perhaps the most visible consequence of the shortage is the one that hits at home. Although parents and others who want helium-filled balloons for parties generally can still get them, for a time recently there were limits on the number of balloons, and some stores simply ran out of helium.

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That seems to have passed, for the most part, but the scarceness gave rise to cheaper alternatives.

Steve Nielsen, owner of Balloon Bonanza in Sandy, uses air to fill balloons, which are then tied to frames, columns or other types of supports to secure his decorative creations and to achieve ornamental heights.

"Not everything we do is with helium, it’s about half of what we used to do," he said. "Helium is not only in short supply, but prices have gone up 25 percent in the past three months alone."

Medical care concerns • More pressing is a possible shortage as it relates to MRI machines. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners use powerful magnets to generate a magnetic field, which is used to peer inside the human body. But to generate that field, the scanners rely on liquid helium’s extreme cold, about minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, to transform the magnets into superconductors, allowing for greater detail in body scans. Liquid helium is the coldest liquid, with a freezing point of minus 459.7 Fahrenheit. There is no known substitute.

Although the scarcity of helium has not had a direct impact on patient care at medical facilities in the Salt Lake Valley, there are worries that it could.

"Our MRIs are very efficient in using the helium, we only have to refill the machines once a year," said Edwin "Steve" Stevens, chairman of the University of Utah’s Department of Radiology. "We also have a contract for service maintenance, which has two years left on the contract. But if we don’t find a replacement source, the shortage could affect us later."

At Intermountain Healthcare, spokesman Jess Gomez said GE Healthcare, which provides MRI systems to Intermountain and services the machines, has given assurances there will be adequate supplies of helium for now.

But GE Healthcare has concerns.

Helium is absolutely essential to MRI production, Tom Rauch global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare, told a Senate committee in May. Although GE is trying to conserve helium during the manufacturing process, MRI machines still need a lot of the gas. Depending on the type of scanner being produced, a machine needs from 4,000 liters to 10,000 liters of helium. If a supply issue resulted in no helium to properly service an MRI magnet — the most important component in the system — a sudden boil-off could occur.

"Although there [would be] no immediate patient safety risk, a magnet could sustain permanent damage and may need to be replaced, an expensive and time-consuming process," he said. "Replacing an MRI often involves a crane, street closures, and knocking down ceilings and walls of a care facility. During this time, patients would not have access to and MRI, and needed care [would not be delivered]."

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