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Helium Shortage Is Bad News For More Than Balloons

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A global helium shortage is impacting everything from party balloons to scientific research.

"It's very tough for us right now," said Ethan Truong, owner of HD Balloons in South Sacramento. "If it keeps happening like that then we are going to close down the business."

Truong says selling helium is a big part of his business, approximately 90 percent.

Five years ago, a helium tank would cost him $25 to fill up, but now the owner says it's close to $300 and that's if he can even get it.

"We can't get any helium from anywhere," he said.

Delivery of the element has been periodic.

"They just ran out," he said.

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The shortage is even slowing scientific research.

"We're expected to try to cut back and put off experiments for a little bit until there's a better helium supply again," said UC Davis professor Rena Zieve. "It's a unique material."

The physics labs at UC Davis use helium in superconducting research.

"It turns out that helium at very close to zero temperature does some interesting things," Zieve said.

To cool their experiments they must use copious amounts of helium.

"Hopefully it's only a temporary increase because it really spiked up with the recent shortage," Zieve said.

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Zieve said the Middle East embargo is increasing demand for U.S. supplies and some of the helium they want is being given to higher priority projects, such as MRI machines.

"If you're a hospital running an MRI machine, you can't just turn off your machine," she said.

So now, they try to recycle what they've used.

"There's been a big move in the United States to try to have much more recovery of helium," Zieve said.

Unlike hydrogen, helium can't be manufactured and the global supply is only found deep underground in a limited supply.

"There's plenty of helium in the earth, the question is finding it and getting it out," she said. "As helium leaves the earth, it's gone and we will never get it back."

Truong is hoping the shortage subsides before all of his business bursts.

Some people have suggested banning party balloons during the shortage, but experts said they account for just a small fraction of the overall helium use.

Others are working to find a more stable underground supply.

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