Helium supply drop may inflatable balloon prices
A dip in the global supply of helium is deflating the balloon industry in Iowa, but locally the effects are not yet being felt. In areas like Ankeny, the price of helium-filled balloons has nearly doubled in recent months. Even areas as close as Iowa City and Cedar Rapids have seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in price, according to Curt Young, delivery coordinator for Waterloo-based Flowerama. But so far, said Young, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metro area has yet to feel the full effects of the shortage. Flowerama ‘s three metro locations have not raised their balloon prices yet, though it could still be in the cards, “What they are saying is that it’s going to last for approximately a year,” said Young. The other problem for the helium balloon industry is its ranking in the helium supply pecking order. As a lightweight, inert gas, helium has a wide variety of uses. In its liquid form, it is used to cool super magnets, such as those found in magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) and nuclear magnetic resonance machines (NMR’s). MRI’s are well known for their use in the world of medicine, whereas NMR’s are used primarily for research. Because MRI’s are a popular method for diagnosing medical conditions, demand for liquid helium from hospitals takes precedence over demand from party and gift stores who use the gas for entertainment purposes. University of Northern Iowa chemistry department head William Harwood said UNI owned two NMR machines as well as a gas chromatography machine, which uses helium in its gas form. Just like Flowerama, Harwood said the university has been able to shoulder the load of increased prices for the time being. Much of the helium in the metro area is distributed by Superior Welding in Waterloo. Superior president Steve Christoph said all distributors in the country were on allocation, “some at 70 percent of normal usage, some at 80 percent. It’s not a good situation.” The shortage is being attributed to maintainence issues at helium-refining plants in Qatar and Algeria, as well as a “maintainence turnaround” in the United States, said Christoph. Also, a strong global economy has increased the demand for helium, especially in developing economies such as China’s. Sean Abbas, president of helium user Iowa Laser Technology in Cedar Falls, said the effects of helium plants being knocked offline by Hurrican Katrina are still being felt. “I know a lot of distributors have cut out supplying flower shops,” said Christoph. “Flowerama was cut of down in Des Moines, but right now we have not done that, but if the situation changes, we would have to look at that.” Christoph said he attended a distributor conference in Ireland over the summer, and the helium shortage was one of the hottest topics. According to Cristoph, the medical community and welding applications are taking priority over the balloon industry, which Christoph said only accounts for 7 percent of the helium demand worldwide. “What’s more important, a balloon for your kid or an MRI patient?” asked Christoph. Some companies, such as Iowa Laser Technology, are feeling the pinch both from direct and indirect use of helium. Iowa Laser uses helium as part of a lasing gas inside of its laser resonators, but also uses it to verify weld integrity. Abbas said helium is a minimum input cost, but since helium is used in the production of steel — one of Iowa Laser’s major inputs — the price change was being felt elsewhere. However, Abbas said his company has combated the rising prices by ordering in larger quantities. “We’ve had pretty good luck because our usage is going up,” said Abbas. “As the price has gone up, our use has gone up, and that has helped us to keep costs fairly constant.” No one could say exactly when or if the supply of helium would catch up with the demand, but for the time being, the metro area has remained largely unaffected.