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A global shortage of helium is being felt in Buffalo.
It could spell trouble for researchers and medical labs that rely on the inert gas - and possibly the end for floating party balloons.
"The price of helium? It's probably doubled in the last, maybe, year," said Chris Potts, owner of Balloon Masters on Broadway in Depew, which now charges a quarter more per helium-filled balloon to make up for the cost.
"But relatively speaking, that's not that big of a deal," Potts said. "It's getting helium."
So where is this gas disappearing?
The answer lies in Amarillo, Texas, where, the federal government has kept a huge reserve of helium since the early 1900s. The gas was stockpiled for use by the military for blimps and welding, and later by NASA for its space projects.
That changed in 1996, when the federal government decided to get out of the helium business, according to Joseph Peterson, assistant field manager for helium resources for the Bureau of Land Management's Amarillo field office. The reserve has been selling off its supply at what many say are below market costs.
At the same time, demand for the gas remains high, and for those who don't have access to the federally managed gas, prices are shooting up because private helium refineries haven't been built as quickly as anticipated.
"There's a finite supply of helium," said Francis M. Gasparini, Ph.D., an experimental physicist and a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo.
While the element is bountiful, industrial-grade helium can only be extracted from certain natural gas supplies. The U.S. produces most of the world's supply of this gas.
"It's a resource that is going to disappear," Gasparini said. "The government should stop selling it off."
Among those feeling the pinch is Capt. Jim Herbert of Osprey Charters, who takes divers to Lake Erie's shipwrecks. Deep-water divers often use a mix of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. The helium is used to offset nitrogen, which can have a narcotic effect at lower depths.
A couple of years ago, 300 cubic feet of helium cost Herbert $65.
"Today, it's $211," he said. "It's gone up dramatically."
So far, Herbert says he hasn't had a problem keeping an adequate supply of helium for his divers, but he knows of other people in the diving business who have.
And he has had to raise the prices for filling his divers' tanks.
"It's like anything else, like gasoline," he said. "You have to pass that along. It affects the users."
He said the higher costs are prompting some divers to switch to "rebreathers," a more sophisticated and expensive form of diving apparatus that doesn't require helium.
Potts, who has been in the balloon decor business for 22 years, says he's never seen helium prices go so high.
To make sure he always has enough, Potts said, he's been stockpiling tanks.
He's also finding ways around using helium.
"You have to get creative," he said.
He has created displays for weddings and other festivities using mostly air-filled balloons.
"Instead of floating overhead, we suspend them and hang them," Potts said.
He also arranges balloons on fixed frames.
"It's cheaper for the customer and makes me a higher profit," he said.
The shortage has been harder on stores that only occasionally use helium, Potts said.
"If you are a small store and you use one tank a week ... and you don't get helium for a couple of weeks, you're out of business," he said.
Nationwide, there's concern about the impact of the shortage on hospitals. Some medical equipment, including MRI machines, relies heavily on helium.
So far, the shortage hasn't affected Buffalo's hospitals. Spokesmen for both Erie County Medical Center and Kaleida's hospitals say they are aware of it but that it hasn't impacted their machines.
Doug Sherman, spokesman for Airgas, which has more than 600 offices nationwide, including one in Cheektowaga, said Airgas has had to cut back on what it can provide.
"We had to go to customers and say: If you have a contract for helium, we can only supply you with 90 percent of what your usage was previously," Sherman said.
His company is also working with its customers on using helium more efficiently.
"We can show them how they can tighten up their gas system and save helium," Sherman said.
UB's Gasparini said that's exactly what should be done. But he also predicted people won't start conserving helium until it gets more expensive.
"If the prices would go higher, people would recover it," he said.
At his lab at UB, Gasparini said, he has been working with equipment that liquefies and recovers at least 80 percent of the helium he uses in his experiments.
"There are a lot of places and schools and NASA where they blow the helium away," he said. "You never recover that. Once that supply in Texas is gone ... the price is going to skyrocket."
He predicted the higher costs would make nonscientific or medical uses of helium disappear.
"The expense will drive away these frivolous uses," he said. "You can get rid of party balloons. ... There's no reason to use helium for that purpose."
But there is hope. Two new refineries, one in Wyoming and the other in Qatar, are expected to be up and running within a year, and that should increase the global supply, Peterson said.
"We're hoping those two projects will help to ease the current situation," he said.

email: mbecker@buffnews.com