Helium Shortage Affects More Than Balloons; Medical Research Up In The Air

08/06/2012 06:00 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - A dwindling supply of helium worldwide is putting more than the future of party balloons in jeopardy.

The precious, non-renewable gas has important applications related to manufacturing, scientific research and medical care — including cutting-edge research on respiratory illness at an Ontario laboratory.

As the shortage grows, the rising cost has put that research into question.

"It's made it difficult to do the research because it's extremely expensive," said Grace Parraga, a professor and researcher at the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario.

Even at a discounted price for scientific research, she said her laboratory pays $795 per litre. That's up from $300 not so long ago.

Parraga said they've been unable to perform a clinical trial because of the high cost.

For the research, helium is dispensed into the lungs and tracked on a monitor, allowing researchers to directly measure the impact of different treatments for the first time. They have tested other gases but none work as effectively as helium, which isn't harmful when inhaled.

The rising cost of helium could also spell trouble for MRI scanners, which are cooled in part by liquid helium. It's also used by the space industry to help operate satellite equipment and spacecraft, and NASA used huge amounts of helium to clean out its rockets prior to launch.

"Helium is non-renewable and it is depleting," said John Beamish, a physics professor at the University of Alberta who uses helium in his research.

Beamish said much of the world's reserves have been derived as a by-product from the extraction of natural gas, mostly in the gas wells of the U.S. southwest.

Much of the world's reserves are stored by the country's Federal Helium Reserve in a natural underground reservoir near Amarillo, Tex.

Congress once mandated that the federal government safeguard the gas, but a U.S. law passed in 1996 stipulates that the government get out of the business and sell off all its reserves by 2015.

There remains plenty of helium. It's estimated we still haven't used half of the resource, Beamish said — but the remainder will be more difficult and pricey to extract.

Eventually, Beamish says dwindling supply could push helium prices so high that some sectors turn to other resources, while those sectors where it's essential will turn to recycling.

Beamish himself recycles helium for his research, to around a 90-per-cent return. MRI machines could eventually go that route as well, he said.

For many, though, the shortage's most noticeable impact remains the absence of high-flying balloons. After having to turn away customers, a Montreal store has posted a sign outside its doors declaring it has run out of helium.

"We called our supplier and he said, 'Don't bother calling back until at least mid-August,'" said Tanya Schaffer, who works at Westmount Stationary. Schaffer said the price for a helium-filled balloon got hiked at the beginning of the year, from $1 per balloon to $1.25.

Balloons, including those used to collect weather data, account for about five per cent of total helium usage.

Still, some experts have even argued the sale of helium party balloons should be banned outright to preserve the resource.

"If you have on the one hand an extremely ill patient for whom you can offer important information about how they're doing, and you have a balloon, I think it's a very easy choice," Parraga said.