Helium shortage forces local party store to raise prices, travel hours away

You can’t smell it or see it, but you most likely used something that was made with it today.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, used for everything from MRI machines to Internet cables. However, a global shortage is forcing some businesses to make adjustments, especially party stores that rely on balloons for the majority of their sales. Earlier this month, Party City announced it will close over 40 of its stores.

“I would say the last five years is when it really started to get bad,” said Deanna Madrigal, operations manager at Let’s Party in Kennewick. “We don’t get any of our helium from the Tri-Cities anymore.”

This time of year – graduation season – the store can sell up to 10,000 balloons. However, they now have to travel to Portland at least twice a month to get helium, and prices are also skyrocketing. Madrigal said costs have tripled in recent years.

“Because we’re a small, locally-owned business it’s huge, the decrease in any sales, and with minimum wage going up in January again to have another decrease on top of that is huge,” she said.

Helium is formed during the breakdown of larger elements, typically underground. It’s a lighter gas that naturally wants to float away, but can be captured when natural gas is extracted. The problem is, those underground helium reserves are running out.

“In the last hundred years we’ve been using it really fast,” said Dr. Eric Melby, chemistry instructor at Columbia Basin College. “So all of that helium that built up over millions of years we are using now, and we can’t wait another million years for more to build up again.”

Because of its unique qualities, helium is used for more than just filling balloons. For example, it can stay in the liquid form at an extremely cool temperature.

“When you need to take a magnet and cool it down to super low temperatures, you can add liquid helium and it cools that magnet down and does those things that you need an MRI or NMR to do,” said Dr. Melby.

Liquid helium is also used in the creation of semiconductors, which appear in virtually all modern electronic devices.

The shortage of helium has forced companies to either accept the price increase or get creative. At Let’s Party, one way they’ve been adapting over the years is by making balloon displays with nitrogen instead of helium.

“People like to see the centerpieces, arches and columns,” said Madrigal. “They’re a lot more labor intensive and the price is a little bit higher, but now because helium is turning out to be outrageously priced we’re seeing the transition to nitrogen.”

Madrigal said balloon prices this graduation season will be higher, but they aren’t concerned about running out.

As to a solution for the helium shortage, Dr. Melby said the best possible method he sees is recycling the helium we already have.

“When we are using liquid helium and it’s turning into a gas, you could capture that helium through a recycling system,” said Dr. Melby. “It’s going to take a long time to regenerate the helium to have enough for us to capture and use.”

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