Worldwide helium shortage hits UWindsor lab, area businesses

A worldwide shortage of helium is affecting research, and businesses, in the Windsor-Essex area.

Research at university's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Lab will be slowed down, coordinator says

Matthew Revington, coordinator of the University of Windsor's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance lab, said a worldwide helium shortage will result in delays to research the lab is undertaking. (Aastha Shetty/CBC)

A worldwide shortage of helium is affecting researchers and businesses in the Windsor-Essex area.

The gas is very important to the University of Windsor's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) lab, which falls under chemistry department, said Matthew Revington, the coordinator of the lab.

Helium is used for the lab's nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, which are "used every day by chemists to assess how well they are making new materials. It's an everyday step in their process of optimizing new molecules for various uses."

"And we need the helium to cool these spectrometers so that they'll have a strong enough magnetic field to produce the information that the chemists need for this type of work," Revington explained.

Suppliers have told the lab to expect 75 per cent of the amount of helium they received last year.

"That may not be enough to keep these instruments running," Revington said. "That will interfere with research and also cost quite a bit of money to keep just even higher prices for the helium we purchase, and in just maintaining the machines without the helium."

The shortage, which Revington believes is related to factors such as supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine, will lead to another slowdown in research conducted at the lab.

"We've lost a lot of time through the pandemic, and now this is going to slow down research overall and slow down our ability to buy new equipment and upgrade the equipment that we have," he said.

The ballooning cost of helium

The shortage is also causing problems for Windsor businesses that make use of helium, causing costs to rise.

"Unfortunately for some customers, the helium cost just prices them out," Stephen Thomson, president of Windsor's Dynamic Displays Fabulous Inflatables. "I know we're low priority. Medicine [and] medical devices need it, and scientific semiconductors, all that kind of stuff."

"But I think that in this world we're living in, bringing joy to people is actually more of a priority than you might think," Thomson said. "And it really is something that I think can make an impact on people."

Shop around

Thomson said he recently saw prices of $600 per tank of helium in a city he was in, but through connections the company was able to get tanks for less than $200.

The key, he said, is to shop around.

"Realize that ... we're seeing some real price hikes for everything we do," Thomson said. "I know that companies are facing that as well, with just supply chain issues, gas prices, all of that stuff is bumping prices up."

"The typical inflationary concerns that everybody's facing is going to hit the helium market as well," Thomson said. "It will find its own level."

Maria and Emily Gibb, co-owners of Balloons by Design, say their business is being affected by a shortage of helium. (Aastha Shetty/CBC)

Maria and Emily Gibb, co-owners of Balloons by Design, said supply shortages are making it hard for their company to even get tanks of helium.

"We can't get our tank refill right now," Maria Gibb said. "We contacted our supplier and they told us it's on backorder. And when it does come in, the prices will be higher."

They haven't heard exactly how much more they'll be paying yet, she said.

Maria Gibb, co-owner of Balloons by Design, says they can no longer guarantee big orders because of issues with the supply of helium. (Supplied by Balloons by Design)

"We can't really guarantee many orders for our customers right now, only for what we have left," Maria said. "But as for the future, we can't really guarantee any big orders to our customers."

Emily said shopping around in Windsor is difficult, too, as there's no helium available in the area, so local companies would be paying extra for delivery.

"It's getting difficult with prices and getting things in stock," Emily said.

With files from Aastha Shetty


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