Helium Shortage Is Hurting Parties and the Pharma Industry

(Bloomberg) -- Helium is not only used for balloons. It’s a critical material in the pharmaceutical industry -- a field that’s taking a hit with the ongoing shortage of this non-renewable element.

The shortage has already hurt the party industry. Party City announced last Thursday it was closing 45 stores, citing in part the increasing scarcity of helium. It has “negatively impacted our latex and metallic balloon categories,” CEO James M. Harrison said in a statement. Harrison said his company expects a new source of helium starting this summer.

For hospitals, that can’t come soon enough. Helium is used for the production of superconducting magnets used in NMR -- Nuclear Magnetic Resonance -- devices. These identify the substances in a chemical mixture and are critical for the production and research of medicine.

“An NMR (instrument) is like a magnifying glass that lets you know what is in a mixture,” Sophia E. Hayes, a professor of chemistry at the University of Washington in St. Louis, said in an interview.

MRIs also use superconducting magnets. Although they rely on helium, MRI magnets don’t consume helium like superconducting NMR magnets. MRI magnets only need an initial helium fill and a 15% top-off once it is delivered and installed. This makes the medical industry able to weather the shortage “a bit better,” according to Hayes.

There are currently about 13,000 active MRI machines in the U.S., and around 50,000 worldwide. The global growth rate is predicted to be about 4% through 2023.

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