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Global helium shortage in the air

By Thomas J. Sheeran

Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- Party planners beware: a global but temporary helium shortage could deflate festive balloons this fall.

The shortage affecting some suppliers results from a series of unconnected events, including delays in getting helium plants on line in Algeria and the Mideast, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said.

The agency manages public lands, mostly in the West, and their mineral resources. It handles 42 percent of the U.S. production of crude helium, the colorless, odorless gas best known for inflating balloons that is derived from natural gas production.

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The government provides more than one third of the world's helium, selling it to private plants for processing.

The various factors involved in the shortage in recent months should be resolved by November, according to Leslie Theiss, who manages the BLM office in Amarillo, Texas, the heart of U.S. production of helium.

The U.S. government helium production remains at 100 percent, but output will be trimmed in the fall for up to two weeks for scheduled maintenance that has already been postponed to reduce further supply disruptions, Theiss said.

Any supply disruptions are most likely to affect occasional users -- such as stores that sell seasonal party balloons -- with year-round contract users in better shape.

Inflating -- "lifting" in industry lingo -- represents less than 7 percent of helium use. Most uses are industrial, including aerospace, electronics, fiber optics, metals and medical imaging equipment.

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