BOISE -- Helium is used for more than just balloons; the gas is used in some lifesaving technologies. There is a finite supply, and now, across the country and around the world, the supply is running out.
Helium used for health care, welding and more
The gas is used for a variety of things, such as manufacturing flat screen T.V.s, welding, and running laboratory equipment. It's also used in health care, for things like cooling the magnets in MRI machines and mixing with oxygen (heliox) to help premature babies breathe.
Helium is naturally occurring underground and cannot be made artificially. The U.S. government estimates the country's helium reserves could be gone in about eight years.
Helium is a gas that actually is mined out of the ground. It's typically blended with a little bit of natural gas. So when you drill for natural gas, you'll get some helium along with that gas, Norco President Ned Pontious said. It's a unique gas, has unique properties, and there's a limited amount of it, and this world will run out of helium someday, unfortunately, and we're trying to mitigate that as much as possible now.
Local distributor limited by global shortage
Just like the rest of the country, Idaho businesses that use helium are seeing high prices and very low supplies. Norco is a multi-state welding, medical and gas supplier headquartered in Boise. Just like every company dealing in helium, Norco is feeling a squeeze that started to come on in the mid-1990s.
Really this is just now in the last two to three months starting to affect our business because we're leaned down as much as we can on our cylinders, and now we're being limited on how much we can even buy, Pontious said.
Norco has only been able to buy 50-70% of the amount of helium as it purchased last year. That means the company has less helium to sell to customers, like party shops. Already, Norco has been unable to fill complete orders for some customers.
It's a little bit frustrating because we've told our customers when they order five cylinders, six cylinders we've told them, because we're being cut back, they may get three to four, Pontious said.
'We're willing to pay... but we can't get it'
The decreasing supply and high demand is making helium not just hard to find, but also expensive. Further, even if companies can afford to pay, Pontious says now that's not even good enough.
Obviously the price on helium has been increasing quite dramatically as the supplies have been drying up, but what's really frustrating is when price is not an issue and you still can't get the product, Pontious said. We're willing to pay whatever we can pay to get it, but we can't get it.
In the last decade, Norco says the cost of a helium cylinder has quadrupled for them. The company doesn't see things improving for at least the next year and a half. It's possible local supplies could be cut further, but a priority is making sure helium cuts stay away from health care customers. Pontious says at this point, local hospital helium orders have not been impacted, and he wants to keep it that way.
I would like to think that some of the what I would call less critical uses, like possibly car salesmen [for balloons], would reduce the amount of helium they're using today, Pontious said. A hospital that needs a heliox cylinder for a newborn baby, they're going to be the number one on my list to support.
Norco says there have been some production equipment issues with U.S. helium sources that have made things even worse. Pontious says a new source is being built in Wyoming to gather helium, but it's not finished yet.