Helium shortage deflates business
Balloons filled with helium are a common gift and party decoration. But in the past year, it’s not just the gas that has been rising. The price of the precious element has floated into the stratosphere.
Rita Shull, the manager at HyVee Floral, uses helium in those popular party balloons. The recent shortage of helium has taken a toll on all helium users. She said the price of helium has gone up 600 percent in the past six months.
The rising price has cut into the profit margins of many businesses that rely on helium. However, Shull has noticed that customers are still demanding helium just as much as ever.
“It has not affected sales much,” Shull said. “Most people who buy balloons want them to float.”
The helium shortage became so dire over the summer that Shull ran out of the gas at one point.
“We were out of it for a few weeks,” she said.
When helium did become available, Shull had to order tanks that were much smaller than what she normally ordered. She had to order “party-sized” tanks which are normally just for a single party since they’re designed to fill 25-30 balloons.
Eldora Marsengill of Washington Rental said she noticed the price of helium go up a few years ago, and then a few months ago her supplier told her it could not ship any more helium to her. Marsengill has had to ration the helium she has left.
Marsengill said she’s still able to provide helium for walk-in customers who want balloons but she no longer rents out helium tanks because she simply doesn’t have enough helium left to do that.
The Associated Press reported early in 2012 that the helium shortage was caused partly by the U.S. government selling off most of its helium reserves by 2015, in accordance with the 1996 Helium Privatization Act.
Shull said the helium she uses is low grade helium since refined helium is reserved for other uses. Helium has a low boiling point, which makes it ideal for cooling metals used in magnets. Helium is used to cool magnets used in medical devices such as MRI machines. These magnets are also used to make semiconductors for mobile phones.
Among the most visible uses of helium is that it is used to inflate large airships such as blimps and hot air balloons. Hydrogen was once used for this purpose but helium is now preferred since it is not flammable.