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Not just balloons. Helium shortage may deflate MRIs, airbags and research – USA TODAY

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Edward C. Baig and Charisse Jones


USA TODAY

Published 10:53 PM EDT May 10, 2019

A global helium shortage could burst the bubble for all the businesses that rely on the gas to lift weather balloons, large blimps, and, yes, the balloons at your kid’s birthday bash that make your voice sound like a chipmunk.

But the shortage is potentially deflating for a whole range of other purposes.

Helium is used in deep sea diving, airbags, cryogenics, rocket fuel, MRI machines and in areas of tech that include fiber optics and semiconductors. 

“The shortage of helium which is present now and which we can anticipate will increase will affect, broadly, everybody,” says Northwestern physics professor William Halperin.

Washington University chemistry professor Sophia Hayes agrees. “There are so many uses beyond party balloons,” she says.

The shortages gained a lot of attention Thursday after Party City announced that it would be shutting down 45 stores this year.

Party City officials maintain the closings and the shortage are unrelated issues and say they are working to secure a new helium source and a contract, which is subject to final approval, would provide its stores with helium beginning this summer and continuing for several years.

Party City store closings 2019: 45 locations being shuttered

Helium shortage 2019: Why it’s harder to throw a party and fill balloons

Although there are long-term ramifications, experts say consumers may not feel the impact right away.

Many companies that rely on helium also say they’re okay – for now.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber spokeswoman Emily Cropper said that while Goodyear uses helium as the lift gas in all of its famous blimps, “our operations are not currently affected by the helium shortage.’’

Corning spokesman Dan Collins says the material sciences company utilizes helium for fiber optics, primarily in the telecommunications industry. But while Corning “does not comment on the materials used in our manufacturing process,’’ Collins said it “is meeting all of its worldwide supply commitments for optical fiber and cable without disruption.’’

Airbag suppliers also painted an optimistic picture for now.

ZF North America, the U.S. arm of a top German airbags manufacture, uses a different combination of gasses for inflators.

“We do use helium, but it is a minor part of our component,” maintains Tony Sapienza, head of ZF TRW North America. “We have no concerns on production with regard to helium at this time.”

Likewise, the world’s largest supplier of airbags, Autoliv, said it also has no concerns about the helium shortage impacting its business.

“We use a very small amount of helium to check for any leaks in our inflators during the test phase,” spokesman Tom Hajkus says.

Doctors’ orders

From the consumer perspective, you should be able to get that MRI the doctor says you need. As Hayes explains, helium shortages have been simmering for a while and hospitals, have planned in advance.  

But Halperin believes smaller hospitals are more vulnerable.

Hayes says that the MRIs you find in a hospital rely on a closed loop system where the helium circulates, in a manner that is similar to the cooling fluid in the radiator of your car. “The helium in such machines must only occasionally be topped off,” she says.

Where the shortage may have have a bigger impact, Hayes believes, is on specialized machines similar to the MRIs in a hospital that are employed by pharmaceutical companies and chemistry departments for research.

Instead of examining people and bodies, these machines, known as NMRs, examine the structure of all chemicals.

“It is one of the most important machines for characterizing when you make something in a chemical lab,” Hayes says. “In a worldwide shortage this will become a problem someday, maybe not today.”

The shortage could result in higher semiconductor costs though it remains to be seen how or even if such costs will be passed down to the consumer, much less how large any increases might be. “Someone will pay somewhere,” Hayes says. 

Where helium comes from

Helium is extracted from natural gas mining and from the National Helium Reserve, which is set to be shut down in 202. It was once the source of about 30% of the world’s supply.

Those most affected by its closure will be cryogenic users, Halperin says.

On the global stage the top suppliers are Qatar, Algeria and the U.S., with possible new sources coming from Russia, and maybe Tanzania, though Hayes says the findings are preliminary. 

Helium is non-renewable and at current consumption rates, it has been estimated that the supply will last another 200 years. 

“Some of us are urging recycling of helium,” Hayes says. “That’s hard to do and it requires a lot of engineering and is expensive.”

Contributing: Kelly Tyko; Randy Essex, Detroit Free Press

Follow @edbaig on Twitter;  @charissejones

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