Getting pumped for graduation?
Not if you're trying to fill a balloon with helium.
You'll likely have trouble floating this year's graduation balloons because of a nationwide shortage of the lighter-than-air gas that, so far, is hitting only the party d้cor industry.
Not hospitals, which use helium for operations and to cool down high-powered scanners. Not welders of stainless steel, who use the gas to keep their welds smooth. Not manufacturers of goods as varied as flat-screen TVs, fiber optics, solar panels and rocket fuel.
Joan Polk and Laura Palandri got their first hint of the problem when they went to Nobbies party goods store in Omaha to buy helium balloons for their graduating daughters — Jazmine Polk from Omaha Central and Ashley Palandri from Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson.
The clerk had some deflating news: Helium supplies were so low that she couldn't guarantee that the store would have any when they needed their balloons.
“Never in my life did I anticipate a helium shortage,” Palandri said.
Polk remembers thinking, “Isn't helium like air?”
Turns out, getting helium these days is more complex than you think. Economics and politics created the shortage, which is becoming especially widespread today.
While helium is abundant and present in the atmosphere, commercial volumes are underground, mixed with some deposits of natural gas and isolated when the gas is refined. Cheap, effective and nonexplosive, helium is a basic industrial ingredient with a wide range of uses, far beyond balloons.
The problems began when the federal government enacted a cost-cutting law in 1996 and began selling off reserves of helium stored underground in a huge oil field in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. The intent was good, but the law set the price so low that it discouraged new production or efforts to find new helium-rich natural gas deposits.
Congress is considering a measure to correct the pricing problem, but it will take time to rekindle the domestic market. Even then, the world eventually will have to learn to live without it: Some experts think the world supply will float away in 30 years, others say 80 years. Once it escapes to the air, helium can't be recovered.
The warm 2011-2012 winter and low market price of natural gas and helium reduced potential profits from gathering helium. The result is a shortage that affects Nobbies, Mangelsen's, Hy-Vee, Walmart and other retailers who carry the balloons that usually bob around graduation parties each spring.
“You definitely want to keep the medical industry running and the industrial uses running ahead of the balloons,” said Wayne Grabel, manager of the Matheson-Linweld gas supply branch in Omaha. “What supply there is of balloon-grade helium is slowly drying up. People are not getting replenished the way we'd like.
“We've never seen the supply go down to this level.”
The Nebraska Medical Center, Methodist Hospital and Alegent Health hospitals have normal supplies, officials at the hospitals said. Nebraska Medical Center spokesman Paul Baltes said the hospital, which has a long-term contract, uses helium gas for some surgeries and liquid helium to cool its magnetoencephalograph, or MEG, scanner, a diagnostic tool used mostly for epilepsy and pre-surgical patients.
Alegent uses helium for a mechanical device known as an intra-aortic balloon pump, which increases oxygen for cardiac patients, spokeswoman Jodi Hoatson said.
Welders of stainless steel use helium, and the Midlands' food industry requires stainless steel equipment that can be cleaned quickly and thoroughly. Millard Manufacturing makes stainless steel platforms, tanks, conveyor systems and other equipment for ConAgra Foods, Tyson Foods, Cargill Meats and other food processors.
“I use a lot of it,” said Mark Jefferson, the company's welding supervisor. “A couple times it's been, not short, but we were getting close to it. So far, Linweld's been able to take care of us.”
The supply situation hasn't put pressure on the company, he said, aside from raising the price of helium about 10 percent or 15 percent over the past year.
Helium is important in welding because stainless steel is a poor conductor of heat, meaning that heat from the welding can build up, cause metal near the weld to distort and create pits, lumps or gaps that are difficult to clean. A mixture of carbon dioxide, argon and helium cools the area around the weld to keep the surfaces smooth.
Experts are experimenting with different gas mixtures to conserve helium, Jefferson said, but the helium mix creates a “perfect atmosphere” for welding stainless steel. “We make pretty welds and seal everything up tight, make it easy to clean.”
Grabel, from Lindweld, said supplies for the Omaha area depend on helium producers, who have been carefully dividing up their production for about the past year.
“When we get a load in, we already are behind the eight ball as far as being able to produce any extra,” Grabel said. “So far we've missed a couple deliveries for our medical people for liquid helium,” but then made the deliveries when the next trucks arrived.
Helium for balloons is “pretty much at the bottom of the supply,” Grabel said. “We can't sacrifice the medical to make sure somebody's got balloon helium.”
Linweld hasn't received balloon-grade helium (yes, there are different grades for different uses) for about seven weeks. “I know some people have some, but it's slowly running out,” Grabel said. “It's going back to the old days when you would inflate the balloon with air and put it on a stick. That's about the only choice people have any more.”
Most balloon-selling stores in the area are not taking advance orders, filling only walk-ins when they have helium. When there's none, they create table-bound centerpieces or bundle up balloons on sticks or in pods for hanging.
Mangelsen's, at 3457 S. 84th St., is down to its last helium tank, not nearly enough to fill the balloons that the store has in stock. “We can't promise that we're going to have helium,” said Mangelsen's Sue Radi. “It really puts a big damper on things.”
“It's been a challenge for us,” said Pat Hensley, assistant vice president of Hy-Vee Supermarkets. “There's not a lot of gas out there, but we try to offer them other products or balloons that don't float. If there's no helium, there's no helium.”
Nobbie's owner Gordon Watanabe said his staff is filling the gaps with centerpieces, arches or towers of balloons and other decorations. The store has some small disposable tanks for customers who simply must have floating balloons. Each tank holds enough helium to inflate about 30 balloons.
The small tanks were just what Polk and Palandri wanted for their daughters' graduation parties. They paid $32 per tank, with the understanding that Nobbie's staff would fill their balloons from them if the Omaha store has no helium in its big tanks on graduation party day.
Polk bought special Central High balloons and balloons from the University of Memphis, where her daughter plans to attend college. Polk said a graduation party wouldn't be right without floating balloons, never mind the extra cost.
“It's definitely worth it,” she said.
Palandri said she didn't want nonhelium decorations. “You have something in mind that you're going to do. I wasn't going to leave it to chance.”
But even though balloons add fun to a party, she said, she realizes other uses for helium are more important and should come first.
“Balloons are just a decorative thing. My balloons seem kind of trivial.”
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