Friday, December 28, 2007

Helium use rises

THU., DEC 27, 2007 - 1:26 PM
Helium shortage to affect U.S. Bank Eve

Families who celebrate New Year 's Eve at the citywide party put on by U.S. Bank won 't get helium balloons when they walk in the door, as in past years.

That 's because a worldwide helium shortage has deflated supplies for balloons.

Helium may be the second-most common element in the universe, but supply is not meeting demand. Producers of helium, which is extracted from natural gas, are limited and new sources have not come online as quickly as needed.

It might seem a light topic. We usually think of helium for filling party balloons, or our lungs in order to create that Alvin and the Chipmunks sound.

But helium also powers industry and science: It is used to make medical MRIs, liquid crystal display screens, as a shielding gas in welding and manufacturing, and more.

Helium for balloons is a very small percentage of the helium used in the world, but it is also possibly the most expendable.

"Of all of the uses of helium, from medical to scientific to industrial, balloon helium comes down on the lower end, " said Jim Ely, vice president of Communications at Airgas, a U.S. distributor of industrial, medical and specialty gases.

That 's why party planners and suppliers may be feeling the blow most.

In the past, 1,000 to 1,300 helium balloons were distributed at U.S. Bank Eve. But the event 's supplier, A to Z RentAll, has stopped selling helium.

"Very few people can get the stuff, " said Todd Jordan, of A to Z RentAll, 2209 S. Stoughton Road.

U.S. Bank Eve will still feature a giant balloon drop with about 2,000 balloons at 7:30 p.m. for a "kiddie countdown " to the new year because those balloons don 't require helium.

Party City, 223 Junction Road, had to stop renting helium tanks because of the shortage, although it started up again about six weeks ago.

The short supply is also affecting prices. Airgas increased prices on helium by 20 to 30 percent, as of Dec. 1.

Mike Keeney, owner of Airigami Balloon Creations, based in Madison, said helium prices have tripled in the past year-and-a-half. The company, which creates displays as well as supplying some helium, sells a tank that fills about 500 standard-sized balloons for $150 to $175, up from $75.

He 's had to pass some of the price increase on to customers but tries to avoid using helium when possible by being creative, for instance, in making balloon arches.

Other balloon decorating companies are so desperate for helium they 're buying it from Airigami, Keeney said.

"That 's a little like Ford calling up Chevy and saying we can 't get tires, " he said.

Some companies have apparently gotten through the shortage unscathed. George 's Flowers, 421 S. Park St., does a light balloon business as part of arrangements and bouquets.

"We haven 't heard anything about a shortage, " said Erica Teela, a designer.

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