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The Global Helium Shortage Is Real, but Don’t Blame Party Balloons

Category: Science,Science & Tech

Part of the problem is that as delightful — and essential — as helium may be, it’s an afterthought for many international businesses. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s helium is produced as a “waste product,” collected while processing natural gas or producing liquefied natural gas, Mr. Kornbluth said. Longstanding sources of it in the United States, Qatar and elsewhere are currently running low. New natural gas projects are on the horizon. But these projects are enormous, expensive and affected largely by factors that have little to do with children’s birthday parties or even broader helium needs.

Because it’s extraordinarily expensive and difficult to store. It’s the coldest substance on the planet, and a tiny bit of heat turns it to gas. Even when kept in a cryogenic container, the liquid slowly boils off, said Samuel Burton, a field manager at the Bureau of Land Management’s helium storage facility in Amarillo, Tex.

Store it as gas and it gradually leaks out of most containers, Mr. Burton said.

Yes, Mr. Burton’s employer has. In the Federal Reserve in Amarillo, helium is compressed at the surface and stored in a layer of dolomite rock more than 3,000 feet underground. Above this, a thick layer of salt keeps it in place.

“Imagine a huge layer cake with one layer able to absorb helium,” he said. Not everyone can afford such a setup.

If by Party City analysts, you mean Phi Phi O’Hara of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” she thinks it’s going to be O.K. (What are her qualifications? A single iconic line, but sometimes that goes far.) There are other places to get balloons and cheap plastic goods, she said in an interview over Instagram messenger.

“When there is no Party City to go back to, you create a new home,” she observed.

And Party City stores in most of America will not change — aside from being better able to offer helium because of a new contract with a better-positioned helium supplier.

If the helium struggles continue, maybe that’s for the best, said Ms. Wilson, the party planner. Balloon releases are horrible for the environment, and parents get overexcited about decorating even though, really, “children just want to play,” she said.


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