BIDDEFORD, Maine — There's a global helium shortage, and it's about more than balloons. Researchers and business owners in Maine are feeling the pinch.
Inside a lab at the University of New England, Amy Deveau's scientific research depends on this machine called NMR.
"NMR stands for Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and it's an essential tool for chemists," said Deveau. "It helps us figure out the structures of molecules."
Deveau is an associate professor and assistant chair for the Chemistry and Physics Department.
The machine, with a massive magnet inside, runs on liquid helium; 300 liters at a time, which is becoming more and more difficult to get.
"The impact of this is really far reaching across the board," she said.
Helium is running out.
"It's pretty scary actually," she said.
Helium is a gas that's lighter than air. On Earth it was created over millions of years through the decay of metals and elements underground. It's extracted from big underground deposits in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas: places that have a unique type of rock that traps helium.
"There's really nothing right now to replace it," said Deveau.
According to the American Physical Society, Materials Research Society, and American Chemical Society, science and engineering only accounts for 6% of the global helium demand. Welding accounts for 5%, and diving makes up 6%.
The largest demand, at 20%, is for MRI machines.
Perhaps the most familiar use: party balloons.
"Everyone is kind of feeling the pinch," said Jim Tarsetti who has owned Paper Party House in Portland for the last four decades.
"We were one of the first party stores to start in New England."
In recent years he said it's been a challenge to meet the requests of his loyal customers.
"We actually had to limit the customers we were renting helium tanks to because we couldn't get the helium tanks," said Tarsetti.
Now, they have some in stock.
The future of helium for him though, is up in the air.
Scientists estimate the helium supply will run out in the next 25 or so years.
There is hope to make it last a bit longer because experts are exploring ways to recycle helium.