Where Has All the Helium Gone?

First record shops. Then video stores. Now … party balloons?  How local scientists are trying to stop the worldwide helium crisis from blowing up.

Illustrations by Josh Holinaty
Last June, I went to the Balloon Gang, a party supply store that manages to cram a small space on Stony Plain Road with the largest balloon inventory in all of Edmonton. Banana-shaped, balloons-within-balloons, and not to mention a 100 different ways to say “Happy Birthday” – everything for your anniversary, fundraiser or furniture store sale.

My wife-to-be sent me there on the eve of our wedding to pick up three 11-inch yellow balloons. I sensed preciousness in how owner Stephen Dubetz meticulously instructed me to carry it to the floor of its destination, undo the twist-tie and let it float up. He finally put the ribboned weight in my palm cautiously, as if it were a bar of gold.

It turns out, that wasn’t far from the truth: “Helium is a natural element,” he said. “It’s like gold or silver, you cannot create it.”

And when it’s let out, the second element in the periodic table – He – is as uncapturable as God himself. This makes the world’s depleting helium supply a real dilemma.

“We’re using it too fast,” says Deryck Webb of the University of Alberta. The scientist at NANUC, Canada’s nuclear magnetic resonance centre, uses it to maintain the equipment needed to find biomarkers of human diseases in blood and urine samples. Across the university, there are countless other chemists and physicists
relying on helium for their own discoveries, plus nearby hospitals relying on it for MRIs, militaries requiring it for rocketry, industries needing it for welding. At about two per cent of helium usage, party balloons are the least of Webb’s worries, yet they’ve become a scapegoat for waste. “They get a bad rap even though their consumption is infinitesimal.”

Moreover, what they buy at twice the cost as everyone else is not even the good stuff. It’s literally diminished “balloon-grade” gas. And yet, says Webb, “They’re the first ones that will get cut off.”

The Helium Biz

When I return to the Balloon Gang months later, Dubetz still remembers my order. “I may not be good with faces, but balloons and events tend to stick somewhere.”

That might be true, but maybe it’s also because June 22 was the day his helium supplier delivered his last tank until further notice. “I went without helium for seven weeks,” he recalls. “I’ve turned away an awful lot of people.”

While we’ve literally been sucking it up for a few seconds of funny, people like Dubetz are watching their livelihoods blow away. Four-fifths of his business relies on a twice-a-week supply of helium. Today he’s rationed one $400 tank every 14 days, which is triple what he’d pay when he took over the business in 1997.

“I started this way,” he says, tapping on a glass counter to a picture of his slightly younger self in a festive vest, sculpting a balloon for a crowd of kids. The former baker has been a “twister” since the early ’90s, when he was entertaining a friend’s three-year-old son and an episode of Mr. Dress-up inspired him to adopt the hobby. At first, all he could make was a mouse because he couldn’t give more than five inches of breath, but now he can squeak into existence a two-foot-tall giraffe or two-foot-long poodle (depending on which way you hold it) in less than one minute per balloon.

Dubetz loves to twist. He still does it at parties and the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, and he can put together a complex structure for special events, but that comes at a premium most customers aren’t willing to pay.

Other suppliers, such as florists and wedding planners, are getting out of the balloon business entirely, forcing people like Lars Erickson of Special Event Rentals to compromise their clients’ wishes. “The supplier we were using before the shortage has restricted their client list to medical and industrial users, so we’re unable to get helium from them.”

He’s been told that he won’t see another supply until at least February, but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s denied so many people balloons that they’ve just stopped asking.

The Helium Shortage

Long before it was known that helium could triple the speed of your voice and, when inhaled, would be the greatest party trick ever known, humankind knew it only as a byproduct of the sun. Its earthly presence was discovered accidentally after natural gas plants of the 1920s liquified everything in their wells – ethane, methane, nitrogen – and the second lightest gas in the universe was left behind.

“The U.S. thought they’d run an air force on balloons, but by the Second World War it was clear that it was industrial and rocketry that would rely on it,” says John Beamish, a U of A professor needing it for low-temperature physics. “They set up a government program to store a very large underground reserve.”

For many decades it was not only the biggest reserve, but the only reserve. However, it was still seen as the “gravy” of natural gas, so when the Clinton Administration, with the blessings of the National Academy of Sciences, decided it wasn’t required, they sold it well below its worth. Consumers sucked it up so fast that the same scientists begged the next president to reverse the decision. That never happened. Now it’s shrinking at a whistling speed and is set to collapse in two years.

There are just six helium-focused factories in North America slowing that clock, with some closing for maintenance every summer. Rushing to mitigate the shortage, new factories in Algeria and Qatar produce it from natural gas with less than half the helium potency. “I wouldn’t say there’s a worldwide shortage, but there’s a worldwide accessibility problem, both geographically and financially,” says Webb, who was asked last year to send his helium allocation to a Maritimes hospital.

“It’s not going to shock me if in the next five years the price doubles,” says Beamish.

Both scientists have built helium recycling centres at the university. Webb has gone so far as to make his contraption big enough for other departments to plumb their used helium across campus and to his facility for up to a 90-per-cent return rate. It’s so effective that even his suppliers are buying it back.

Webb is looking for other ways to commercialize his operation in the future. Last June, he tried to buy back helium from the City of Edmonton’s signature parade balloon, however the logistics of getting it across the river with deflation were too complicated. But even if he turned it into a business, it would only favour big consumers. For a parent to scuttle over with a minivan full of party balloons for a couple bucks back makes neither dollars nor sense.

Dubetz suspects that as more get out of the business, his will absorb their customers and he’ll stay afloat until retirement. “There’s maybe a dozen of us left,” he says. For now, the price of a regular balloon is $3. Not exorbitant, but still triple what Dubetz sold them for when he started the Balloon Gang.

If helium gets so expensive that, as Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Richardson famously quipped, balloons will need to cost $100 each, industry professionals can always rely on other gasses. “There’s hydrogen,” says Beamish. “But people probably don’t like the idea of their kids having explosive balloons.”

What will happen if The Red Balloon becomes a requiem? In our hyper-digital age, helium balloons are one of the few natural joys left for kids. A balloon full of air just won’t cut it – the second you throw it, it’s dropping to the floor, all sad and wimpy. But filled with helium, it fights to get away. The first time I let one go and watched it fly to the clouds, I felt the thrill of liberty, but also a sense of loss that I had to reconcile. And that was a powerful lesson, that there are some things no one can bring back.

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