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Why Is There A Helium Shortage?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- For most of the summer, Litin's Party Value in Minneapolis wasn't blowing up helium balloons they didn't sell themselves or filling helium tanks for commercial customers. That stopped Thursday morning.

"It was nice to walk into work today and see the memo," said Jodi Schoenauer, business development representative for Litin's. "We had a little pullback on our supply, but we have loyal suppliers that have diverse ways to source helium."

The worldwide helium shortage has been going on since the spring. About half of the Party City stores in the metro area were out of helium on Thursday afternoon. According to a statement from the company, "Party City's helium supply issues have been intermittent and we're constantly working to replenish helium at any affected stores."

"It's probably the third time in the past ten years we've run into a helium shortage," said Ryan Diekow, President & CEO of Oxygen Service Company. "It's not like oxygen or nitrogen or argon where it's just sitting in the atmosphere, those are a lot easier to get."

Helium is one of the most common elements in the universe, but it's not common on Earth. It's typically found underground in natural gas fields. Companies that draw out natural gas can separate the helium and purify it.

"Refining helium is an expensive process," said Diekow.

And, helium isn't just for balloons. It's used to conduct medical MRIs, to pressurize liquid-fuel rockets and the manufacture fiber optic cable. It's commonly used by the military and NASA. One of Oxygen Service Company's biggest customers is a local manufacturing company that uses helium for research and development.

Diekow says this most recent shortage is due to a number of factors, including difficulty getting it out of a part in Qatar and an Exxon Mobil refinery in Wyoming performing maintenance this summer. There's also federal helium reserve in Texas that's been drawing down its supply for years.

"We're thinking October things will start to mobilize again," he said

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