Thursday, April 5, 2012

Up in the Air over Helium

Helium, how we love thee.  You fill our balloons for parties, birthdays, and special events that are close to our heart.  Balloons show someone's love for another, that they are another year older, or make someone who is under the weather feel so much better.  But one day you will be gone and balloons as we know them will never be the same.

Yes it is true.  Helium is a non-renewable resource and one day it will be gone.  We all know that helium is used for balloons, but did you know that their are many other uses for helium?  
Helium's single largest use is in cryogenics to cool super magnets used in MRI machines and nuclear reactors. It is also used for welding.  So what makes helium so great?  It is the second lightest gas, surpassed only by hydrogen.  It also has a super low boiling and melting point that makes it perfect for cooling those super magnets in MRI machines.

So where does helium come from?  Helium is a natural by-product of mining for natural gas.  Once upon a time the gas was captured when released and stored.  Around World War I and II, the US government saw that helium would come in very handy to the war efforts.  It stockpiled a very large amount of helium, the largest supply in the world.  Because of all the extra helium, we understand that the US is no longer capturing Helium like it used to.  In 1996 the government decided to sell most of the stock pile.  The problem is that they wanted to sell as much as possible, as quick as possible and did not adjust to the fair market price.  This means a lot of helium flooded the market at rock bottom prices.  Now that supply is running low and the market price is being adjusted at a super fast rate.  According to some of our florist friends around the country some have seen a 2x to 3x cost per tank of helium.  A tank that might normally have cost around $85 back in 1996 is now selling for as high as $325!  WOW, put that in your balloon and float it!  

Now before you panic, this shortage has not hit our town as of yet.  We have talked to our supplier on several occasions and he assures us that he has plenty to keep us supplied for the foreseeable future.  So Decatur will still have balloons and we can all still have great parties.  I have heard reports of shortages from all over the country, some florists are being told that there is none and that they should not hold their breaths for that to change anytime soon.  

There may come a time when collection resumes and everything goes back to some kind of normal.  Most speculate that helium still has another 100 year run, but not at the prices we have seen.  Medical and industrial use will take precedent over the balloon industry and only those that can afford it will have it.  I for one do not look forward to the day that balloons will cost $100 each, and that will be long after we can afford to buy the tanks to fill the balloons we love so much.  

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