Helium supplies low, prices high

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - In 1996, Congress mandated the sell-off of its helium stores from underground reserves by 2014. Now the pinch is being felt.

But this gas has more uses besides filling up balloons and blimps.

Larry Mcilvoy owns the Golden Grotto Party Store in Jonesboro. Balloons are a big part of his business, but the helium issue is starting to cut into profits.

"About two months ago, prices escalated drastically." Mcilvoy said. "Almost but not quite double, it went up 75% in a week."

A regular foil balloon holds 1 cubic foot of helium. Within a week the price went from 32 cents to fill it to 80 cents to fill it.

In the 1980's the government had a 1.4 billion dollar debt from gathering helium. In the past the government had basically bought up all the reserves to avoid selling the gas to German Zeppelin makers. Most all the helium is stored at an underground reserve in Texas. In the years following a mandated sell-off, the private industry has not caught up with the demand as was anticipated. Now there are plans to perhaps slow the massive sell off to allow a catch up time.

Mcilvoy doesn't believe there is a shortage of helium. But, he says, this isn't the first time this has happened.

"I've seen this happen before, it happened back about 10 years a go." Mcilvoy said. "There was a giant escalation of helium prices but it didn't go this high."

McIlvoy says many suppliers make their customers sign contracts. But those contracts are giving consumers smaller tanks at higher prices.

"A bottle this size which is about 250 cubic feet was 98 dollars, now it's a little over 200 dollars." He said. The tanks are about 4 and a half feet tall and are about 8 inches around. Mcilvoy says they usually keep about 6 on hand.

But the helium shortage also affects other things besides birthday parties.

Helium is used in the manufacture of flat-screen TV's, the space shuttle used helium to get into space and a lot of research uses helium for projects.

Helium is also vital in the medical industry. At the NEA Baptist Hospital gift shop they have a helium tank, but they also use liquid helium in MRI imaging machines at both the hospital and Imaging Center for cooling.

Don Hubbard showed me the large MRI made by Altaire. In the room you could hear the steady "thump - thump" of the magnet rotating.

Hubbard said once the MRI powers up it's left on and the helium basically freezes the wires that surround the magnets.

Over at the hospital, Dr. John Phillips was looking at MRI images. He said the cooling powers of helium provides the ability to make the sharp images of the patients.

Phillips, "Liquid helium is in a jacket around the wires of the MRI to keep the wires very cold so that it provides no resistance to the flow of electricity in the magnet."

Doctor Phillips says re-charging of the MRI have to be scheduled far enough in advance so suppliers can find the helium, which can present a problem.

Phillips, "They aren't able to find enough to completely fill the magnet so instead of having a six month supply we may only get a 2 or 3 month supply."

These current machines don't have to be recharged as often as early models did. In fact both the hospital and the clinic will be installing Siemens MRI's that will only have to be recharged about once every 5 years. A good thing as prices go up and the supply dries up.

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