Helium is an essential chemical element used in MRI scanners, rocket fuel tanks, and floating party balloons. It’s also a finite natural resource, and a global shortage has made it harder to sell balloons at Party City, which is now closing 45 stores.
On Thursday, the party supply retail chain announced plans to shut down about five percent of its stores across the country this year, attributing some of its first quarter financial losses to “helium challenges.” In a statement, CEO James Harrison said the company usually closes 10 to 15 stores a year. And for a company whose success is strongly tied to the emblem of a traditional party—the humble balloon—being unable to provide ones that can float presents a serious problem.
In a post on its website, Party City offers some of creative hacks for decorating with helium-free balloons. “You can create a balloon arch or balloon wall with latex and foil balloons as seen below,” the company writes, “no need for helium; just some tape and creativity.”
For those who don’t get the same jubilant satisfaction taping a balloon to the wall as they do seeing one hover (and eventually collect dust in a corner), the current helium shortage and the subsequent closure of a bunch of Party City locations is probably a bummer. But it’s also pretty devastating for a number of non-party related fields that depend on the inert gas, like the scientific and medical communities.
“Industry and scientists are going to be really creative,” Phil Kornbluth, a helium industry consultant, told National Geographic last year. “If we get to the point where we just can’t keep up with demand, either prices will go up to create new incentives to find more, or we’re going to develop substitute technologies that don’t rely on helium.”
Thankfully (for balloon fans, at least), Party City says it has signed agreement with a new helium supplier to provide more of the squeaky stuff this summer.
Medical technology innovations: Cutting Back on Melanoma Biopsies. With the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, a huge number of dangerous-looking moles are actually harmless, but has always been impossible to know for sure without an invasive surgical biopsy. Today dermatologists have new help in making the right call — a handheld tool approved by the FDA for multispectral analysis of tissue morphology. The MelaFind optical scanner is not for definitive diagnosis but rather to provide additional information a doctor can use in determining whether or not to order a biopsy. The goal is to reduce the number of patients left with unnecessary biopsy scars, with the added benefit of eliminating the cost of unnecessary procedures. The MelaFind technology (MELA Sciences, Irvington, NY) uses missile navigation technologies originally paid for the Department of Defense to optically scan the surface of a suspicious lesion at 10 electromagnetic wavelengths. The collected signals are processed using heavy-duty algorithms and matched against a registry of 10,000 digital images of melanoma and skin disease.