Letting The Air Out Of Party Balloons

Kelly Jane Torrance notes that the US government, the world’s number-one supplier of helium, “has been selling it at a cut-rate price that has no connection to its actual value.” Now a shortage is affecting a wide range of industries:

Worldwide, cryogenics—the fancy word for the field in which liquid helium is used as a coolant—accounts for 29 percent of helium use. That includes pharmaceutical research and MRIs. Welding uses 17 percent, while 5 percent is used to detect leaks, mostly in industrial manufacturing—a critical component of safety for those employed in the sector. Party balloons use up more—8 percent worldwide. “You have to take a look at your market. If you look at the priorities of that particular gas, the number-one priority is medical,” [executive at industrial gas supplier Air Liquide Martin] Lovas says. “With one cylinder of, say, 300 cubic feet, you can do nine MRIs. Or you can fill 1,000 balloons.” …

The Federal Helium Reserve currently holds about a third of the world’s total reserves. Might American users—research laboratories, medical institutions, the Department of Defense, NASA—just buy it elsewhere once that reserve is gone? That depends on a lot of things, of course, including one very uncertain factor: the state of global geopolitics. Almost all of the remaining helium reserves are located in two areas not currently known for their willingness to do favors for America: the Middle East and Russia.