Paul Scotthorne

Victoria floats above helium shortage

Global helium shortage shouldn't impact MRIs, UVic chemists – but balloon inflations could suffer

Helium is on the minds of many businesses and organizations and it’s not so their employees can talk in high-pitched voices.

There is currently a worldwide shortage of the mined gas, which has caused the price to inflate. And while some businesses have been unable to fill helium orders, the gas is still flowing in parts of Greater Victoria.

The shortage is being felt across the country, and in Greater Victoria some novelty shops have signs near the balloons explaining there is no helium on site. Some stores, however, including Party Crashers in Langford, are still filling balloons.

“I just ordered two tanks of helium and they just came in,” said Paul Scotthorne, manager and co-owner of Party Crashers. The store uses up to four tanks per week filling the orders of the 10,000 varieties of balloons it carries.

The store has been a loyal customer to its local helium supplier, Liquide Air, and has been guaranteed a supply of the gas.

The price of helium has been increasing, but the store has kept the floating balloon prices starting at $0.79.

Other than balloons and generating squeaky voices, helium is a crucial element used for both health care and scientific studies.

Helium is commonly used in MRI machines in hospitals to help cool magnets. Luckily the three MRI machines in the region are “newer, more modern MRIs that consume significantly less helium,” said Shannon Marshall, Vancouver Island Healthy Authority spokesperson.

There is one MRI machine in Nanaimo that requires more helium to operate.

VIHA isn’t too concerned over the shortage because, under contract, the MRI service provider is responsible for supplying the gas.

If the shortage becomes more dire, Marshall said novelty shops and other groups using the gas for non-medical services would be cut off first.

Helium is commonly used by University of Victoria chemists, but they haven’t felt the pinch either.

The gas is used to cool the magnets of a devices used to look at the nuclei of molecules.

Neil Burford, chair of the department of chemistry at UVic, said the helium shortage exists, and fears if the shortage gets worse the university will be left without the gas for its research.

“For us it’s not a matter of life or death, as it is in the hospitals,” Burford said.

Like VIHA, UVic receives its helium from contracts with service providers.


Annual helium shortage

The helium Party Crashers uses to fill balloons comes from a mine in Washington State, said Paul Scotthorne, co-owner of the Langford store.

“The problem is the mine closes down for one month every year,” Scotthorne said, adding that this happens every year. “This year no one stockpiled.”

Scotthorne thinks the helium crunch will be over at the end of August.

There has been talk about infusing the helium with a little bit of oxygen to make the supply last longer, Scotthorne said.

Instead of 100 per cent helium in the balloons, Scotthorne said it would be about 94 per cent helium, six per cent oxygen.

With that gaseous combination, the balloons would still float.

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