A world-wide helium shortage has deflated the grand opening of the Wonders of Flight balloon ride in Sevier County. The owner of WonderWorks found out the hard way about what researchers now call a "crisis". Turns out the shortage is also affecting other East Tennessee industries.
"What we are looking at here is the landing pad for the balloon," explained WonderWorks owner, Robin Turner, as he pointed to construction workers assembling a circle made out of cement and iron behind his main attraction on Highway 66.
It's an attraction that's been two years, and $2 million in the making. A helium-filled balloon, called the Wonders of Flight is set to open in a few weeks.
"Everything's on target. The pilots have been hired. The pilots have been trained," said Turner.
But, an essential part of the ride is missing, and that's keeping it grounded for now.
"There's a world-wide helium shortage, and there is no helium," explained Turner.
He's right; helium is in short supply.
"We've been worried about that for some time because of various decisions that were made in the 1990s about how to manage the United States' stockpile of helium," said Kevin Jones, Ph.D., a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Both liquid and gas forms of the element are critical ingredients of energy research. Recently the lab was notified by its helium supplier that its purchase amount is cut by nearly half.
"Over the past few months we've had to make deals between our various research programs in the laboratory to help each other out to have enough helium available," said Jones.
The shortage also affects medical science. Consider this: MRI machines won't work without helium. UT Medical Center lost all of the liquid helium from one of its machines last year. As a result, some patients had to wait for imaging.
"It took about a week and a half to get the 200 liters necessary to fill that system up and get it operational again," said Dr. Alexander Pasciak.
The number of party balloons taking shape at All Occasions Party Rentals in Knoxville is also slow.
"If they just wanted a small tank that would blow up maybe 100 balloons, it was maybe $55. Today, I think we rent that same tank for about $150," said All Occassions owner, Terry Turner.
So what's drawing down the helium supply and driving up the price? The U.S holds 34 percent of helium reserves in the world.
A 1996 bill, called the "Helium Privatization Act", was meant to reduce spending. It requires the U.S. to sell off its helium reserves by 2015. The government initially purchased the stockpile from private companies during the 1960s for military purposes.
"It's made by radioactive decay of heavy elements, like uranium, underground. So, it's made very slowly, much slower than we are using it," said Dr. Pasciak.
Now, researchers fear there eventually won't be enough helium to go around to places like UT Medical Center, ORNL, birthday balloons, and to lift the Wonders of Flight off the ground.
"We have to keep the pilots on stand-by to get through this, and it affects the economy... When the supply is corrected, we'll be in line and ready to go," said Turner.
Wonderworks is trying to locate helium from a source outside of the United States. But, the balloon attraction cannot open without it. Turner said he will make a decision about if the balloon attraction can open in a couple of weeks.
He had expected to open in time for the July 4th holiday weekend until he found out about the helium shortage.