As a major specialty retail chain runs into problems with its helium supplies, so too is the scientific community, which is drawing attention to a shortage that’s causing more than birthday party woes.
You could call it a ballooning problem for the novelties industry—although a shortage of helium supply is causing problems far beyond birthday party retail.
The shortage drew headlines last week when the Party City chain announced that it will close 45 stores in the U.S. and Canada this year (although its CEO said the move is not related to helium supplies). But science and industry groups have been raising concerns about the shortage for years.
A 2016 policy report from the American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, and Materials Research Society highlighted the far-reaching effects of helium shortages on scientific research. The gas is is considered the “lifeblood” of research in the physical sciences.
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“If nothing is done to address these price and supply issues, then there will be a lasting negative effect on the scientific enterprise in the U.S.,” the groups stated in the executive summary of the report. “In fact, as helium has become less available and much more expensive, we have already begun to see damaging signs.”
Those signs include evidence that researchers are moving to areas of study that don’t rely on liquid helium, that professors are reducing the number of graduate students they hire, and that institutions are moving away from hiring faculty in areas of research that require the use of liquid helium.
The problem has worsened in recent years, according to a recent Physics Today article published by the American Institute of Physics. Additional “shocks” to the helium supply have turned the problem from a mere frustration into something more like a crisis.
The problem has surfaced in more consumer-friendly media as well. The American Chemical Society’s Reactions series, a popular YouTube program coproduced with PBS Digital Studios, stressed that the supply is finite for everyone, not just party supply companies.
“This incredible element is in high demand all over the globe,” ACS stated in a news release. “It’s also way too expensive to create in the laboratory, and that’s bad news for more than just your birthday party!”
In addition to its use in research, helium is a critical element in a variety of manufacturing sectors, including semiconductors, fiber optics, and medical imaging.