CHICAGO -- Helium is the talk of the party balloon industry these days, and it is not a discussion being carried out in high-pitched giggles.
The second most plentiful element in the universe is suddenly in short supply on this planet, and that means soaring prices for a lot of things, balloons included.
"Some customers have told me they're just not going to sell balloons anymore because they can't get helium," said Chicago party wholesaler Lee Brody. "Everybody's scrambling."
As raw materials crises go, the helium shortage clearly takes a back seat to the global oil crunch. But the repercussions go well beyond the cost of decorating birthdays or bar mitzvahs, while also shining a light on an obscure federal helium program that has proved critical to feeding the world's growing appetite.
To most of us, helium is just a novelty gas that floats blimps, bobs huge latex whales over car dealers and makes your voice sound like Daffy Duck when inhaled (which, by the way, experts say is a really bad idea that could lead to a collapsed lung).
But demand for the gas has taken off in industry and scientific research in recent years, and the helium squeeze is being felt everywhere from university physics labs to plants in India, China, Taiwan and South Korea that make today's hottest consumer products. Japanese helium suppliers recently warned customers in the electronics industry to prepare for supply cuts of up to 30 percent.
Helium is less dense than air, which explains why it makes balloons rise and voices squeak. Sound waves travel faster through it.
It is also noncombustible and can be liquefied to temperatures approaching absolute zero, properties that render it ideal for cooling metals that produce superconductivity or in processes that throw off a lot of heat. It is used to make flat-panel TVs, semiconductors, optical fibers and medical MRIs, and it toughens industrial welds. NASA uses a full train car load to pressurize a liquid fuel rocket.
The U.S. government is the world's No. 1 source, drawing helium from a Texas reservoir it began filling after World War I when dirigibles were thought to be the coming thing in transportation and warfare.
That stockpile will be empty in a decade, and new overseas sources have been slow to develop.
"We're pedaling as fast as we can here, but we just can't produce enough," said Leslie Theiss, manager of the Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo. "One-third of the world's helium comes from our little place here. That's kind of frightening."
In today's increasingly interdependent global marketplace, the balloon business finds itself at the bottom of the helium supply chain. What began as spot shortages last year have grown chronic this year, said Lee Kaufman, president of the International Balloon Association, a party industry trade group.
Kaufman is also co-owner of M.K. Brody Co., a Chicago party wholesaler, which often goes through 100 cylinders of helium per week. The firm's distributor recently put it on a weekly allotment of just 33 cylinders.
A standard tank with enough helium to blow up 400 average-size balloons cost $40 five years ago but $88 today, Kaufman said. And he's been told to expect another 50 percent price increase before Christmas.
Helium is abundant in space, a byproduct of the nuclear fusion of stars. On earth, however, it may be the Rodney Dangerfield of elements, not getting the respect it deserves and fodder for a variety of lame science jokes:
"Have you heard the one about the chemist who was reading a book about helium and just couldn't put it down?"
It is locked largely in natural-gas deposits and typically found only at trace levels too expensive to strip out and refine.
By a quirk of geology, however, some natural-gas fields in this country are blessed with robust helium concentrations. And that has made the U.S. to helium production what Saudi Arabia is to oil.
In the 1990s, Congress decided the government should get out of the helium business. Federal law requires the stockpile to be completely sold off in about 10 years.
But private industry has been slow to pick up the slack. New production facilities in the Middle East have been beset with problems and not produced hoped-for yields.
"Demand is increasing overseas and people are starting to get nervous," said Maura Garvey, director of market research for CryoGas International, a trade journal in Massachusetts that closely follows helium markets. She predicts helium supplies will remain tight through at least 2010 and possibly well beyond.
Back in Amarillo, Theiss fears the day of reckoning for world helium supplies may be coming a lot faster than for oil or other nonrenewable commodities.
"To our knowledge, nothing has been discovered to date that has the reserves we have here," she said. "Exports have increased 50 percent in the last five years. If you've got a finite amount and a lot more suddenly starts going overseas, do the math. It's not going to be good when we're done here."
Bob Secter writes for the Chicago Tribune.