"Helium cliff" is killing the party balloon business

CC BY 2.0 Nick Gray/ Flickr

Whenever we have written about the waste of helium in frivolous balloons, we are called, as might be expected, party poopers. But as Brian wrote last year,

These helium party balloons surely rank among the most frivolous products in existence. The prospect of labs around the world disbanding crucial medical and scientific research to make room for crinkly novelty items is stunning in its absurdity. It is a powerful reflection of how reckless the marketplace can be.

Helium was cheap because the American Government has been packing it away since 1929 for its dirigible fleet and has been selling its stockpile at a low fixed price, but now it is closing down the reserve in Amarillo, Texas. As a result the price has doubled and supplies have become tight. Jeffery Jones writes in the Globe and Mail:

The worsening problem goes well beyond party decorations. It is hampering scientific institutions that use it in high-purity liquid form for research, organizations that need it for medical imaging equipment, the electronics and aerospace industries and even welders. When it comes to the priority list for helium, balloon-fillers are at the bottom.

Jones says "The shortage is remarkable, given that helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe." This would be true if we could mine the sun for the stuff. Unfortunately all the helium on earth comes from the radioactive decay of uranium or thorium, and is intermingled with natural gas from some conventional wells. As the price rises it may become economical to open up new sources (Weil Helium is about to drill a helium well in Saskatchewan), but the stuff is going to cost a lot more.

For balloons, the party's over.

"Helium cliff" is killing the party balloon business
As US government closes its reserve, the noble gas critical to medicine and industry (and parties) gets scarce and expensive.

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