Running out of a 2nd gas

IN FOCUS

Demand for helium, widely used in medicine, industry and science, is rising so quickly that managers say they expect the U.S. government's stockpile to be used up in 10 years

Science

January 18, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

ST. LOUIS -- Listen up, prank callers and party clowns.

The nation's supply of helium - the gas that has given rise to millions of party balloons and Donald Duck voices - is dwindling. In fact, the managers of the nation's lone helium reserve, in Texas, expect it to be depleted within 10 years.

"It's a bad pun, and I've used it before, but the nation's demand for helium has just ballooned in recent years," said Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federal helium reserve near Amarillo.

Medicine, industry and science depend heavily on helium. It plays a significant role in nuclear magnetic resonance, welding, fiber optics and computer microchip production. NASA uses large amounts annually to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.

The helium pinch is already being felt in St. Louis and other major cities in the United States. Balloon retailers say that one supplier in the St. Louis area actually ran out of the gas for about a week last fall, leaving them to scramble for additional helium tanks.

"The price has definitely gone up, and its availability has been in question," said Popsicle the Clown, also known as Kathy Landess of St. Louis. "I don't think everyone realizes it's a natural resource."

Because of the shortage and the growing demand, helium prices have skyrocketed. The average liter of liquid helium today is about $5, a 50 percent increase from a year ago, buyers say.

And Praxair Inc., a major worldwide supplier of helium, announced recently that it was increasing prices 20 percent to 30 percent. A competitor announced an increase last month.

"We have to be thinking of these things," said Lee Sobotka, a chemistry and physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Up to now, the issue often hasn't risen to the level that it's important. It's a problem for the next generation of scientists. But it's incumbent upon us to have a vision, and tell it like it is - a resource that is more strictly nonrenewable than either oil or gas."

The planet's helium supply has been built up over billions of years from the decay of uranium and thorium. Helium exists as a gas but can become a liquid at very low temperatures.

Known for its unique stability, helium can be found in many of the world's natural gas fields, including those in Kansas, Oklahoma, Algeria, Canada and Russia.

In 1925, the U.S. government began buying helium and stockpiling it in an abandoned natural gas field in the Texas Panhandle, primarily to use in dirigibles, airships widely used before 1940. It decided to get out of the business almost 70 years later when private-sector uses began dwarfing its own.

"It's estimated there is about 22 billion cubic feet left in the reserve last year, and last year we sold about 2.1 billion cubic feet," Stuart said. "When you consider the reserve supplies 45 percent of all U.S. supplies and about one-third worldwide, that's significant."

Adding to the growing helium crunch is the fact that two overseas plants expected to go online last year have stalled, Stuart said. Some major U.S. companies that supply helium also have shuttered.

As the supply shrinks, many industrial helium users are calling for its conservation to help stretch the national reserve beyond its anticipated depletion.

Sobotka said laboratories could make better attempts at conserving helium by using machines called liquefiers that can capture, store and reliquefy helium on-site. Some large research facilities - like Argonne and Oak Ridge National Laboratories - already have that capability.

At Washington University, helium is used in several laboratories at a cost of "several tens of thousands of dollars" a year, Sobotka said. There, it is recaptured, but sent off-site for reliquefication.

"The government had the good vision to store helium, and the question now is: Will industry have the vision to capture it when extracting natural gas and consumers the wisdom to capture and recycle?" Sobotka asked.

Balloon retailers, who use about 7 percent of the national supply, are already promoting conservation.

The International Balloon Association, a group of balloon manufacturers and distributors based in Wichita, Kan., is asking its members to consider alternatives to helium, such as good, old-fashioned air, particularly for balloons that don't have to float. It's also promoting products that can extend the float time of a balloon and decrease helium use by about 25 percent.

"I think lately the message has been all doom and gloom, so many people are already at that point," said Marty Fish, the association's executive director. "But education can really help until the helium supply stabilizes."

Troy Apprill, owner of Balloonville Productions in St. Louis, said he has been incorporating air-filled balloons in his designs for some time.

He says those balloons often can give an effect similar to those filled with helium in most designs.

Still, Apprill and other St. Louis-area balloon-based business owners haven't been shielded from price increases.

"Sometimes customers are a little surprised by the price, but it doesn't prevent them from wanting a fun arrangement," he said. "It's sort of like price increases with things like gasoline or bread, or milk. People don't stop buying them."

Helium's uses

Although most commonly known for giving lift to party balloons, helium is widely used in medicine, nuclear research, aeronautics and welding. It helps propel NASA's shuttle into space. It is used to detect gas leaks in products such as tires, refrigerators and fire extinguishers.

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