Gas ballooning as an adventure sport is likely to fade away in the US, as a sharp spike in helium prices and supply constraints threaten the survival of the sport, according to reports from Reuters and the New York Times.
Gas balloons, are mainly used by ballooning enthusiasts to set distance records, with flights lasting as long as two or three days. Unlike the more common hot-air balloons, which use propane as a fuel, gas balloons use helium or hydrogen for flights and in light of the constrained global helium situation, this past-time would appear to be under threat.
Hydrogen ballooning is almost non-existent in the US, due to the highly flammable nature of the gas, while a similar fate could be heading the way of helium ballooning if issues over supply & demand aren’t addressed rapidly enough.
“Price is just about to drive gas ballooning extinct in this country,” the New York Times quotes Andy Cayton as saying, an avid gas balloonist and retired army helicopter pilot who runs balloon rides in Georgia.
The price for a full tank of fuel for cars might be exorbitant these days, but filling up a helium-filled gas balloon could cost over $12,000. And that’s merely the cost of the fuel gas - buying an actual gas balloon itself can cost around $30,000. Two to three years ago, the cost to fill a helium balloon of the same size was only around $3,000.
A part of the price escalation is driven by escalating energy, fuel and other operational costs as well as the growing demand for helium from other sectors.
Praxair Inc, one of the largest refiners of crude helium in the US, said the use of helium in the manufacturing of microprocessors, electronics and fibre optics has increased the worldwide consumption of the gas. Helium is also used in aerospace and medical applications.
Helium, as a by-product of natural gas production, has also faced some supply interruptions in recent years that have created shortages and fuelled some of the price escalation.
Most balloonists agree that if the sport is to survive in the US, hydrogen has to gain wider acceptance and become the adopted norm. A number of enthusiasts are already converted to this method and are seeking their kicks on the European Continent as an alternative.
Troy Bradley, based in New Mexico and training gas balloonists, is flying with a student to Germany in August to fly a hydrogen balloon there. Hydrogen-based gas ballooning is common in Europe and much cheaper, as Bradley explains, “It is actually cheaper for us to fly to Europe, rent a car, get a hotel, go fly there and come back.”
Supply & demand concerns
The concern over helium supply & demand has been in the industrial gas limelight for some time, and was also a hot topic at the first-ever gasworld conference in the Middle East as the Spiritus Group’s John Raquet delivered a presentation about the dilemma.
Raquet provided a brief overview of helium as a gas and addressed both the global and US supply situations, describing how helium’s a hot topic in the Middle East and a market growing at between 5-7% with its main uses in MRI, carrier gases, leak testing and diving gases.
Speaking about the rising demand and concerns of insufficient helium supplies, Raquet noted that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the US may only be able to offer a limited production capacity. He commented, “If the world demand is increasing as it is the BLM and all its reserves can only supply a certain amount per year and no more.”