Global helium shortage affecting medical and aerospace industries, not just party supply stores

There's a global helium shortage and it's affecting not just party supply stores, but everything from aerospace to the medical field.

Right now, only three sources product about 75 percent of the world's helium: They're in Qatar, Texas and Wyoming. In 2018, about 79 percent of helium used came from Qatar while 21 percent came from other sources, according to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Helium, which is a naturally occurring gas, is extracted from the ground and usually comes mixed with other gases -- natural gas in particular. The natural gas in Utah, Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming is richer in helium than in other states, which is why there are extraction plants in those areas, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management.

The Bureau of Land Management operates and maintains a helium storage reservoir, enrichment plant and pipeline system near Amarillo, Texas. It supplies more than 40 percent of domestic demand for the element.

The USGS report also noted that 14 plants in the United States provided about 1.4 billion cubic feet of helium for domestic use, with about 30 percent of that helium being used for MRIs. Helium is also used for weather and research balloons, welding, fiber optics, leak detection and defense, aerospace and energy programs.

But despite the importance of helium, the U.S. will stop distributing it by 2021, according to the bureau. The Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 established an auction system for the sale of the country's federally owned helium along with all of the accompanying property and equipment. It has to be disposed of by Sept. 30, 2021.

Sales and auctions were held since then, with the last one happening in 2018. During that auction, helium prices went up about 135 percent, according to gasworld.

So, is helium renewable? The short answer is no. But many parts of the world attempt to recycle helium, while the practice is seldom used in the states, according to USGS.

And while the supply of helium dwindles, demand continues to go up. But some industries, such as party supply retailers, are now starting to let customers know about the shortage.

Party City created a page on its website to inform customers that because helium is in short supply, certain balloon orders might be affected. If helium isn't available, the company offers alternatives such as balloon arches or walls that don't require helium-filled balloons.

This is the third helium shortage since 2006, and the helium industry is slow to respond to shortages because of how long the process can be to produce the gas, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.