Helium out of air

By Scott Barancik
Published December 8, 2006

Grocery-shopping with an ornery toddler can be unpleasant. At Lakeland-based Publix, parents have long relied on two in-store freebies to mollify their restless progeny: a fresh-baked cookie of their choice and a brightly-colored balloon.

Not anymore. Publix is temporarily charging 99 cents apiece for the tranquilizers-on-a-string at its stores, citing a global helium shortage. Spokeswoman Maria Brous said the free-balloon program will resume when helium prices return to earth, perhaps early next year.

“Obviously, we want to make kids happy and put smiles on their faces,” she said. “(But) contrary to popular belief, helium is a natural resource.”

Petroleum shortages may get most of the attention, but the world’s supply of helium — a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas — is dwindling, too. Last month, two events caused an unexpected but significant decline in production: regularly scheduled maintenance at some U.S. facilities and launch delays at forthcoming plants in Algeria and Qatar.

Balloon sculptors and helium huffers, who draw laughs for their high-pitched voices, are by no means the only parties at risk.

MRI X-ray machines depend on freezing-cold liquid helium to cool their magnets. NASA uses helium to flush the fuel lines on its shuttles.

The gas is used by superconductors and semiconductors, scuba divers, cryogenists and nuclear fusion reactors. Mark Kinsley, operations director at helium supplier Tri-Tech in Tampa, said welders are a major consumer.

Fortunately, suppliers have shown better sense than to rank party balloons highest on their ration lists. Most helium distributors give hospitals first dibs, for example;.

Some balloon purveyors have been lucky. John Penuel, general manager of a Party City store in St. Petersburg, said he hasn’t been forced to ration supplies, despite reports that an Atlanta franchisee saw his inventory sink by one-third.

The City of Chicago was able to float giant balloons at its recent Thanksgiving parade, but only after an alternate supplier made a 4 a.m. helium delivery.

Publix customers shouldn’t pout too much. Free helium balloons will return someday. Parents also can pick up free crayons and a coloring book at its stores’ customer-service desk.

And the risk of a global cookie-dough shortage appears minimal.

Times wires were used in this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.