Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tears of a Clown, and Divers too, over a shortage of Helium

I was away for the past few days in Canada, visiting the folks.

While there I had an opportunity to peruse through and re-acquaint myself MACLEAN'S magazine, a serious news magazine that while sometimes tilts left-materialistic or semi-right-paternalistic-Canadian has the excellent Mary Steyn as columnist and often get things right and is in general very well written.

They also, as it turns out, have a beautiful website that puts many other news magazines and newspaper's websites to shame, including an excellent archive search function.

While reading the dead-tree edition magazine I saw the article in the magazine concerning the recent helium shortage.

Now the magazine began with a rather popular approach to the issue, noting that the scarcity of helium is causing the price of helium and hence helium filled party balloons to go up, but then mentioned some of the other critical applications for helium. In Tears of a clown: helium prices soaring: The helium shortage goes far beyond party supplies
JOHN INTINI | October 22, 2007 |

When you're a kid, nothing gets a party started like helium. In fact, most everyone, at some point or another, has sucked back some of the colourless, odourless and, most importantly, voice-altering gas. It is, after all, one of the few things a kid can inhale without getting into trouble.

But a global helium shortage -- which has doubled prices in the last five years -- is threatening this age-old tradition. It's also proving worrisome to party-supply store owners, and making the life of a working clown a lot more expensive. Suppliers have been forced to raise prices, slash orders (especially to those in the birthday business) and turn away new clients. Some party stores can't get any at all. And those lucky enough to get a line on some helium -- which is extracted from natural gas -- have hiked their prices to cover costs. For instance, The Party Bazaar in Vancouver, which sells about a million helium-filled balloons every year, increased the cost of renting helium tanks by 10 per cent this month (the three-day rental of a large tank, capable of blowing up 500 balloons, is now $159). This shortage could also have a larger effect on the balloon business. Since air-filled balloons currently lack helium's staying power, manufacturers are said to be searching for alternative materials to make balloons.

And the implications could go far beyond birthday bashes and Valentine's Day. In fact, balloons only represent about seven per cent of the entire helium market. The gas is also used in hospitals to cool MRI machines, for laser welding and even by NASA to keep space shuttles from overheating.

As noted in the article, the helium shortage goes far beyond party supplies.

Helium however has a far more noble and glorious purpose than merely making balloons rise and voices squeak, and has another critical purpose overlooked by the article.

Helium is the gas technical divers use to replace nitrogen partially or completely (and sometimes percentages of oxygen) in their breathing gas mixtures when they go into deep water to avoid nitrogen narcosis, and to reduce their decompression obligation and nitrogen buildup, thus making dives both more clear-headed and safer.

The increasing price of helium makes triox, trimix and heliox fills increasingly expensive, and should as the article predicts, the supply of helium be exhausted it will be difficult to find a replacement gas with the same excellent characteristics as helium for diver's use.

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