Helium shortage deflating party suppliers, scientists

    Jacob Cowger's helium tanks were recently filled. He's dealt with the shortage of the gas for around eight years, but says, at times, it's actually helped drive customers to his business, Balloons Etc. and the Costume Emporium.

    Across the corridor and the country, businesses are feeling a little deflated because helium is in short supply.

    Jacob Cowger is the owner of Balloons Etc. and Costume Emporium. He’s been dealing with this up and down cycle for eight years.

    "It gets worse every year about this time of year," he says.

    Luckily for him, he’s learned from experience and isn't running out.

    "Oh, it would definitely hurt. I mean, balloons is a pretty substantial part of our business,” he says at the thought of running low on helium gas.

    Other party suppliers aren't so lucky. Some are turning away customers; Pierson’s Flower Shop in Cedar Rapids says they’ve seen more customers coming in who couldn’t get balloons filled elsewhere.

    Though the most widely known use for helium, blowing up balloons equals only a fraction of the usage for this non-renewable resource.

    "Four degrees above absolute zero, so it's the coldest liquid we have available as scientists," explains

    Lou Messerle, an associate professor of chemistry with the University of Iowa.

    He says that cold factor, plus the fact that helium is completely non-reactive, makes liquid helium invaluable in cryogenics, or keeping things cold. It helps scientists look at your body and beyond.

    "Its major use is in cryogenics for MRI instruments and also in chemistry, we have what we call NMR machines which work on the same basic principle, looking at molecules instead of people,” he says.

    Professor Messerle says the U.S. sold off part of its helium reserves, held in Texas and other southern states since the 1920’s. He attributes that for creating what he calls a “scary” shortage.

    "If we can't keep these magnets cool and we can't find a new material which doesn't need liquid helium to keep it cold, we're going to be in a lot of trouble medically and technologically."

    University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics spokesman Tom Moore says while the shortage is not new to them, it hasn't affected the hospital or patients since they have a standing contract with a supplier through 2021.

    Other countries are starting to drill into the earth for the noble gas, which is created during nuclear decay, but Messerle fears that will only drive up prices for American buyers. Cowger has stockpiled his supply, which has saved him a time or two.

    "With a lot of people getting cut off on helium sporadically, we did see a pretty heavy increase on our balloon customers,” he says.

    Though he’s heard rumors the price will blow up again in coming months.

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