From party balloons to research and medicine, Twin Cities eyes helium shortage

May 10, 2019 06:26 PM

Its crunch time at Litin's Party Value in Minneapolis.

Spring is the season of graduation celebrations and other events – and balloons are often the quintessential decoration.


"So yes, it is our busiest time," said Jodi Schoenaur.

Like all other party supply stores, Schoenaur said Litin's is feeling an impact of the global helium shortage. She said luckily, their supplier has only cut their yearly supply of helium by 25 percent – many other stores aren't able to get any helium right now. And they've only made small increase in prices despite surges in helium costs.

"We have been very fortunate to get consistent supplies of helium, though it has been slightly scaled back," she said.

Employees at Litin's are still filling upward of a thousand helium balloons a day in the busy season. But, they are also encouraging more customers to consider air-only balloon displays as an alternative.

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"We also don't blow up balloons that other people bring in because the quality isn't the greatest and [when] they pop, we are out the helium and they are out the balloon," Schoenaur said.

Beyond balloons, helium is used in a number of industries you might not realize like manufacturing cell phones and other tech devices. It's also critical for some medical procedures.

"Within our MRI equipment, if we don't have the helium we aren't able to use the equipment," said Julie Singewald, director of radiology at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. "In order for that magnet to work we have to make it cold and the helium is one of the best things we can use to make it really cold," Singewald said.

Helium is also used in hospitals to treat severe cases of breathing disorders, like COPD.

There's a finite amount of the gas on the planet and it's trapped in the earth and is released through drilling. It's often mixed with natural gas making it expensive to extract and capture. At the same time, the U.S. government stockpile of the gas from decades ago is depleting and helium is being used more and more in the manufacturing of electronics like cell phones and computer hard drives along with roles in scientific research and space travel.

"I think it's important for people to understand it is more than balloons and there are a lot of other uses," Singewald said.

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Matt Belanger

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