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Helium

Wild Rose Florist floral designer Joan Urquidi holds what might be the last helium balloon to be found in Elko. A sign on the front door of Wild Rose explains there is a shortage of helium.

ELKO — It looks like the days of losing party balloons and sounding like one of The Chipmunks are over for a while.

With the world experiencing a helium shortage, florists in Elko are finding that helium-filled party balloons are becoming a thing of the past.

“We haven’t had helium in over a month,” said Elko Albertsons florist Desi Leininger.

Khoury’s Market Place and The Wild Rose Florist are also out of helium until further notice, with balloons remaining deflated and gathering dust.

“Nobody has any helium,” said Dina Einboden, manager of The Wild Rose Florist.

So where’s the remaining gas going? Helium is used in laboratories, for welding and in MRI units at hospitals.

“Balloons are only 10 percent of the helium market,” Einboden said. “The big thing they need helium for is for MRIs.”

Liquid helium works to cool the MRI machine’s superconducting wire coil to minus 452 F.

“We’ve not seen any repercussions at this point,” said Bruce Jonas, director of diagnostic imaging at the Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. “It’s not really a medical gas other than machine maintenance.”

The hospital gets a refill on their liquid helium about once every 12-18 months, Jonas said. The process has become much more efficient than it was when they needed a refill about once a month.

Jonas said he does not expect the cost of an MRI to increase.

While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, much of what is in Earth’s atmosphere leaks out into space.

The Kansas City Star reported that the United States produces about three quarters of the world’s supply of helium. The supply is expected to increase by the end of this year as more plants come on line in Wyoming, Russia and Qatar.

In 1996, Congress passed legislation mandating the federal government’s helium supplies be sold off by 2015. The Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, introduced in April, would extend the deadline and allow the federal government to continue supplying world markets with helium at market prices.

David Robertson, professor of chemistry at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told the Kansas City Star that the shortage will have a dramatic impact on research and medical imaging. An MRI machine may require 2,000 liters of helium to cool the magnets.

The floral department at Smith’s Food and Drug in Elko reported it is still selling helium balloons, but is out of helium until the current order arrives. The cost of the balloons is not expected to increase.

The Wild Rose Florist has been out of the gas for about two weeks, unable to order helium from its Air Gas or Norco suppliers, Einboden said.

But there’s no need to walk away deflated. Parents seeking alternatives to decorating their kids’ birthday parties may consider air-filled balloons that are available on sticks at Albertsons. The one advantage is they won’t fly away, Leininger said.

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Find Heather Kennison on Twitter at @hkennison EDFP. You can also continue the discussion online at elkodaily.com, the Free Press’ Facebook page and on Twitter at @ElkoDaily.

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