"At minus 269 degrees centigrade, liquid helium has the lowest boiling point of any substance," he said. "Because of this, it is used to provide the low temperatures needed for superconducting magnets, such as those used in most MRI scanners in hospitals."
Several congressional leaders spoke out this year in support of proposals to prevent the helium reserve from closing soon.
"American manufacturing, high-tech and medical industries are already struggling to deal with helium shortages and cannot afford to have a devastating disruption in the market," Schumer said. "If Congress does not act quickly, the key job-creating industries will face very real economic troubles."
Just recently, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., released a discussion draft of the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act - geared to put in place "a common sense plan" to sell helium from the reserve "in a responsible manner."
"This bill is an opportunity for both sides of the aisle to come together and fix a problem that will have serious impacts on American jobs and the economy," Hastings said. "Reforms are necessary to inject competition and obtain a more accurate price for helium that gets a fair return for taxpayers."
This measure would put in place a system to operate the reserve over the next decade, or until it runs out of helium; set fair prices; and ensure that retailers and the government alike get a fair share of the remaining gas.
But when only 3 billion cubic feet of helium remains, the last of it would be used for "federal national security and scientific needs," according to Hastings' proposal.
Another measure proposed this year would reauthorize the Federal Helium Reserve, making sure it doesn't close down, and work to sell off helium more carefully - and at true market rates - to make sure the current supply lasts longer.
"Loss of this supply would cause a severe disruption in the helium market, and significantly increase costs for American manufacturers," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. "This legislation will ensure that American taxpayers get a fair return on the sale of helium from the Reserve."
A steady supply of helium is "critical to the manufacturing process and continued health of the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry," according to a statement from the Semiconductor International Association.
Government officials have said an undetermined amount of helium is available not only through the private industry, but it also is being processed in Wyoming and overseas sites such as Australia, the Middle East, Russia, Algeria and Qatar.
Many dollar and grocery stores no longer carry helium tanks to sell helium-filled balloon. And those who are still in the business are definitely feeling a pinch in their pocketbooks.
Freeman said a 240-cubic-foot helium-filled tank that she once rented out for $60 now goes for $175. And a batch of 12 helium-filled balloons, which for years was $10.50, now costs $15.
But she creates a lot of balloon displays with air, so she may not use as much helium as some others.
"I don't know what to think about the increase," she said. "We have to go day to day."
Workers at Mary Poppins Balloons & Flowers in Fort Worth have felt the price increase as well.
"It's more expensive by far," said Chris Langeliers, a flower designer and deliveryman there.
"Some people are doing away with helium all together. Some people make a number of arches 1/8and displays3/8 with just air, putting air in a Mylar balloon and putting it on a stick.
"For now, we are not giving up on helium," he said.
"If it gets higher and higher, it will cost more to have it. ... Eventually, it may work us out of the helium balloon business."
What is it? A colorless, tasteless, odorless gas. It's the second most abundant element, after hydrogen, in the universe. It doesn't react with other elements.
Chemical symbol: He
Atomic number: 2
Melting point: -457.6 degrees Fahrenheit
What is it used for? Party balloons, blimps, cooling MRI machines, pressurizing the inside of liquid fuel rockets and even helping deep-sea divers, who breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen while underwater, avoid disorientation. Other applications include welding, electronics, metals, fiber optics, aerospace and research.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Chemicalelements.com
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