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What the Global Helium Shortage Means for the Macy's...

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1979. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is expected to use 350 thousand cubic feet of helium to fill 30 giant balloons and 7 self-powered “balloonicles.”

But attendees of the parade may not realize that Macy’s is likely paying a premium for all that gas. The helium industry has been grappling with a global helium shortage since early 2018. Phil Kornbluth, President of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, says prices have doubled, and in some cases, tripled from this time last year.

He says global shortages are the result of an imbalance between supply and demand. Because helium is in finite supply, its availability is largely contingent upon the natural gas industry.

“Before someone can build a helium plant, someone else might need to invest billions of dollars to develop a natural gas field, build pipelines, build an LNG (liquified natural gas) plant.”

The current shortage is the result of the depletion of the government’s stockpile of helium and the decline of existing sources. But Kornbluth says developing projects should end the shortage and create an influx of supply by 2021 or 2022.

While helium is nearly ubiquitously associated with balloons, Kornbluth says the major players in the industry are not what we tend to think.

“The applications, they’re a little bit sexier than filling party balloons. Liquid helium is the coldest substance on the planet and it’s used as the refrigerant for the super-conducting magnets that are in MRI-scanners.”

Other important consumers include semi-conductor manufacturing, the aerospace industry, and the United States military. Not the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Despite the price jump, Kornbluth says Macy’s probably has not had a hard time getting the helium they need for tomorrow’s celebration. 

"The fact is that the Macy's Parade, while it's an extremely visible use of helium -- and a fun use of helium -- it's actually a relatively small use of helium."

Kornbluth points out that Macy's uses 350 thousand cubic feet of helium once a year, while major consumers use far more than that every month.