The growing global shortage of helium didn’t stop Macy’s from holding its annual Thanksgiving Day parade, but it’s clear others are more concerned.
Shrinking supplies of helium, the lighter-than-air gas, have forced Disneyland in Tokyo to stop selling inflatable Mickey Mouse heads at the popular theme park. As the price of the gas increases, other Japanese companies are seeking alternative sources of supply in Qatar, Russia, and Poland.
Japan remains the world’s leading helium importer, but demand has dramatically increased in countries such as China and India. Shi Quan, a trader in Shanghai, told CNN that the current rush for helium is the second significant shortage for the $500m helium market in five years.
The root of the latest shortage lies in the US, which exported 80 percent of the 180m cubic metres of helium used around the world last year. The current shortfall has come about due to the necessary maintenance of certain dated US installations such as a pipeline network that connects processing plants with a helium-rich natural gas field in Texas.
All of which means the price of helium has, appropriately enough, gradually risen over the past decade. Helium prices in the US have gone up this year to $84 per million cubic feet; the US Bureau of Land Management reports that’s up by nearly 70 per cent from the $49.50 per million cubic feet in 2000.
Helium has plenty of more serious uses than filling inflatable Mickey Mouse heads. MRI clinics use liquid helium to cool superconducting magnets in crucial MRI machines, while the gas is vital in factories that make semiconductors and fiber optic cables.