MELVILLE, N.Y. — The sleepless nights spent worrying about helium started about a month ago.
That's when Leon Sorin -- owner of Balloons by Sorin, balloon artist and vendor of these floating balls for events including Columbia University festivities and bar mitzvahs -- was told that he would get one or two tanks of helium instead of his usual weekly supply of 10.
"People are panicking and the balloon stores are limiting you to 10 balloons per person," said Sorin, whose company is based in Queens, N.Y.
Sorin, like his fellow balloon vendors, has been aware of a global helium shortage for about a year, but only in recent weeks have he and his colleagues begun to feel the pinch. Sorin was among the more fortunate because he had 15 tanks in storage and found another distributor to help bolster his supply -- but it's nowhere near the 10 tanks a week he used to receive.
The worldwide helium demand is outpacing supply, and any interruption in production and delivery can throw the market off balance, experts said.
Helium plants expected to be fully operating this year in Qatar and Algeria were delayed and, in some cases, shut down, experts said. In September of last year, Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the nation's largest private producers of helium, shut down a plant in Wyoming for scheduled maintenance. Two months later, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management -- which operates the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, and provides crude helium to private refineries -- did the same with its helium enrichment plant. During the winter, ice storms shut down production at a number of private plants and federal facilities, the agency said.
Though a typical part of any child's party, helium-filled balloons represent a small percentage of how the gas is used. Helium, the most stable of all the elements, is used to cool the magnets used by MRI equipment and purge the space shuttle's fuel tanks, the bureau said.
Helium also is used in detecting gas leaks in other products and conducting state-of-the-art particle physics research. The gas even has a hand in the semiconductor and computer chip manufacturing process and plays a role in the guiding mechanisms of air-to-air missiles.
The federal helium program, created in 1925 to ensure a supply for the government's defense needs, consists of a storage facility called the Bush Dome. The federal reserve has become a major world supplier, but that was not the government's intention. When private demand outstripped the federal need, Congress passed the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, and the reserve was intended to supplement private sector production. The program, however, now supplies about 42% of the domestic demand for helium and 35% of the global demand.
Demand in Asia and China has gone up because of the expanding electronics industry there and the use of sophisticated welding techniques, said John Campbell, publisher of the journal CryoGas International.
Federal mandate places agencies such as NASA at the top of the helium supply chain. In times of scarcity, the private distributors prioritize helium for medical uses, experts said.
"Like it or not, the balloon industry is at the lower end of the food chain," said Leslie Theiss, bureau field manager for the Amarillo Field Office.