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New world of balloons

Only hydrogen is more abundant in the universe than helium, but here on Earth the element that floats party balloons, cools medical instruments and brings smiles to parades is in short supply.

No, the world’s not running out of helium. There is no helium crisis. Nonetheless, disruptions to helium’s storage and enrichment have meant higher prices as supplies fail to keep pace with demand.

What we’ve learned from the shortage is we’ve been spoiled. All this time we’ve been taking for granted something that, while plentiful, isn’t easy to access, nor is it free.

As The New York Times recently reported, there have been other shortages of helium over the decades, but the current global helium shortage, according to those in the know, has lasted longer and affected more industries than any shortage previously experienced.

The shortage starts in the Texas Panhandle in Amarillo, which calls itself the helium capital of the world, and with good reason. The federal government keeps about 11 billion cubic feet of helium in a vast underground reserve northwest of Amarillo, and a nearby facility processes about 30 percent of the world’s helium.

The Amarillo helium reserve dates from the waning days of bayonets and horses when observation balloons and zeppelins were considered the future of war. Because helium was safer to use in airships than hydrogen, Congress created a federal helium monopoly in the 1920s to guarantee the nation had a ready supply and to keep the price of helium steady. Airships quickly faded into history, but helium’s national security importance found new life during the Cold War as, for example, a coolant to make rocket fuel.

In 1996 Congress, going through one of its periodic enthusiasms for privatization, decided to get out of the helium business and sell off most of the government’s Amarillo reserve by 2014. Unfortunately, private industry hasn’t shown an eagerness for helium, and the few new helium plants being built in Wyoming, Qatar, Australia and elsewhere have been hit with construction delays and other problems. Its reserve shrinking, the government in October raised the price for crude helium almost $9 per thousand cubic feet, from $75.75 to $84.

“The shortage is due to demand exceeding our ability to produce helium,” Sam Burton, assistant field manager for helium operations at the Amarillo reserve, told the Times. “Typically in the past, there’s been enough helium in the distribution system that the end consumer never saw the problem. This has been an extended shortage, and all of the helium that’s been in the supply chain has been expended.”

In addition, because helium is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas and because the price of natural gas is so low, drilling operations in gas fields in the Panhandle and lower Great Plains, which are rich in helium, have slowed.

Demand will continue to exceed supply, at least in the short term. Congress might push the sell-off date for the Amarillo reserve back a few years, but it will not re-nationalize helium.

So helium may never play the same cheap and readily available role in our lives again. We might be looking at a brave, new birthday-party world.

The Times noted that the Party Club of America, an association of party industry stores, will hold sessions about how to dealwith the helium shortage at its exposition this month in Houston. One session is titled “No helium, no problem!”

Apparently, air-filled balloons supported aloft on a stick — they’re “the new helium,” industry insiders said — are in our partying future. We’ll adjust, we suppose, to this new helium-deprived reality, though parties will never be the same if no one can again channel their inner Alvin the Chipmunk.

 Austin American-Statesman