Helium shortage affecting Tri-City businesses

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 2, 2012 

When Henry Kidwell went to buy a helium tri-mix for his welding business, he only could get two of the four bottles he wanted.

Retailers such as Spokane-based OXARC Inc. say they are rationing helium because of the worldwide shortage that began about a month ago.

Kidwell said he never has struggled to get helium for his business, Frontier Trading of Pasco. He uses the gas to weld stainless steel hopper-bottom grain trailers.

He said he was able to buy enough, but it was about half of what he wanted.

Demand for helium is beyond the amount available, said Joe Peterson with BLM's Federal Helium Program in Amarillo, Texas. Helium is not being produced overseas at the same rate it was a few years ago, so requests for U.S. helium have increased.

OXARC stores, including the Pasco location, are receiving about 80 percent of the helium they got a year ago, said Michael Sutley, OXARC vice president and general manager.

"We are trying to spread it out so everybody gets something," Sutley said.

The helium shortage, which Sutley called the worst in the company's 44-year history, may last about 90 days, he predicted.

As a result, prices have jumped 31 percent since October, and they are expected to rise again this fall, Sutley said.

Helium is used for research, welding, electronics, gas leak detection, fiber optics, weather dirigibles and party balloons. In most cases, there isn't a substitute, Sutley said.

The federal Bureau of Land Management continues to sell the same amount of helium this year as that has since 2003 -- about 2.1 billion cubic feet, Peterson said. The government's sale of stockpiled helium represents about 40 percent of the nation's helium sales.

Peterson said some projects in the works are expected to help improve the helium supply in the short term and beyond.

In the meantime, OXARC is giving priority to hospitals and laboratories.

That explains why the Paper Factory in Pasco's Broadmoor Mall had been out of helium for about a month.

Until a week ago, store manager Chantelle King was sending customers to other stores because while the store has plenty of balloons to choose from, most people want to fill those party favors with helium.

"People would like them to fly," King said.

Hospitals use helium as a coolant for magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI machines, and OXARC is doing its best to get contract customers about 80 percent of what they bought last year, Sutley said, noting some customers are able to buy about half.

Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland has not had a problem getting enough helium, said Kadlec spokesman Jim Hall. Kadlec uses helium not only for its MRI scanner but also as a mixture in respiratory therapy for those suffering from asthma, Hall said.

Geoff Harvey, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory spokesman, said while helium prices have gone up in the past five years, labs have had little difficulty receiving enough helium for research.

Researchers at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory use helium in nuclear magnetic resonance, an essential component for molecular biology and biochemistry research, Harvey said.

And while hydrogen can be used in a weather balloon, it is too flammable for use in party balloons.

Historically, the federal government began using helium for military purposes toward the end of World War I for reconnaissance, Peterson said.

In 1996, Congress directed BLM to sell the government's helium reserve, Peterson said.

At one point, the government stored 45 billion cubic feet of helium. Now, the reserves are down to about 10 billion cubic feet.

While federal agencies have priority, most is sold to private companies who then distribute it, Peterson said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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