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The world is experiencing a shortage of the gas, a byproduct of natural gas production, threatening MRIs, scientific research and birthday parties

Sorry to burst your balloon, but the world is currently experiencing its third major helium shortage in the last 14 years, putting more than just party decorations at risk.

Heather Murphy at The New York Times reports that the shortage recently made headlines when Party City, the chain store perhaps best known for being the place to get bunches of helium balloons, announced the closure of 45 of its 870 stores. Many people, noting that recently some of the stores have been out or short of helium, blamed the low supply of the gas. Corporate headquarters, however, say the closures have nothing to do with helium shortages. Nevertheless, the story brought to light the fact that helium is currently being rationed.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the entire universe. So why can’t we keep it in stock? Soo Youn at ABC News reports that here on Earth helium is kind of hard to come by. It’s created during the decay of uranium and thorium underground and is collected along with natural gas. During natural gas processing it’s then separated out into a transportable liquid form. But doing that is expensive, and it only takes place at 14 refineries in the entire world, with seven in the United States, two in Qatar, two in Algeria and one in Poland, Russia and Australia, respectively. Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, tells Murphy that currently natural gas projects that produce helium in many of these areas are running low on supply, and large projects that were anticipated to be up and running by now have either been shelved or are running behind. Read more…