Deward Cawthon, a plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve, walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011.
The Senate is considering legislation to prevent a global helium shortage from worsening in October. That's when one huge supply of helium in the U.S. is set to terminate. The House overwhelmingly passed its own bill last month to keep the Federal Helium Program going.
That was a relief to industries that can't get along without helium. The gas is used in MRI machines, semiconductors, aerospace equipment, lasers and of course balloons.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the helium shortage is to talk to people like Stacie Lee Banks, who owns a flower shop in Washington, D.C. She is one of the go-to people in the city for filling large orders of party balloons.
Banks says she started noticing a problem about half a year ago. Her supplier used to send her two tanks of helium every time she was running short. Now he only sends one tank — if that. When she called him recently, he said he was completely out.
In a bind like this, Banks would normally pop over to the CVS pharmacy next door to fill up balloons.
"They're saying we can't use any of their helium anymore either," Banks says. "So it's like, I don't know where we're gonna get helium."
There's a global shortage of refined helium, and it could get worse if the federal government doesn't stay in the business of selling helium.
To understand how we got here, we need to go back to nearly a century ago to World War I. Germany started building huge inflatable aircraft, and to keep up, the U.S. started stockpiling helium. That federal helium reserve is located outside Amarillo, Texas.
Sam Burton of the Bureau of Land Management helps manage the supply. Burton says "he lives and breathes helium," adding that he's a "total helium geek."
Burton says there are now 10 billion cubic feet of the gas stored in this federal reservoir — enough to fill about 50,000 Goodyear blimps. And it's all kept under a wide-open prairie dotted with coyotes and jack rabbits.
"Imagine a layer cake being several thousand feet thick, layers of rock several thousand feet thick, you'd get an idea of how the gas has been stored in one particular layer," Burton explains.
Over the decades, private companies learned how to extract helium too. But they weren't extracting that much of it, partly because the government was selling helium so cheaply.
Then in 1996, Congress decided it was time to get the federal government out of the helium business so it wouldn't compete with private industry. Congress passed a law that would effectively end the helium program this October. The problem is, private companies haven't caught up with demand, and a big hole would be left in the market if Washington suddenly cut off supply as scheduled.
Salo Zelermyer is lobbying to keep the government operating the reserve: "Certainly if you take half the domestic supply and a third of the global supply off the market just like that, you're going to get a lot of volatility in the system. You're going to have a lot of end users that aren't going to be able to meet the needs of both taxpayers and regular folks who go in to get MRIs or go out to buy high-end electronics."
So industries are nervous.
Carolyn Duran of Intel Corp., which makes semiconductor chips, says they're already learning to limit their use of the gas.
"Where we've been able to replace helium with another inert gas like argon or nitrogen, we have," Duran says. "Where we've been able to conserve, shut off things instead of keeping continuous flow, we will do that."
If legislation to head off the shortage passes, it would buy private companies time to find reliable domestic sources of helium.