Helium Balloons
Representational image Reuters

Last minute Valentine's Day gift shoppers hoping to surprise their paramours with a bouquet of balloons are in for a deflating surprise.

A global helium shortage is causing supply chain disruptions for gift shop owners, raising the possibility there won't be enough of the lighter-than-air gas to fill the tens of thousands of foil hearts, flowers and puppies to be gifted on Tuesday.

I have one tank of helium to fill all of my Valentine business, store owner, Bennie Sparrow told Buffalo, N.Y.-based CBS affiliate WIVB 4, noting that is enough for 600 balloons in a day that could see her receiving 1,000 orders. That's going to be something that's going to be a major issue in us small business people being able to stay here, she added.

The forthcoming Valentine's Day disappointment is only one reflection of a much wider issue: the world is running out of helium reserves, and companies are not increasing output to match the unabated demand.

It's bleak

Most of the world's helium is extracted using a process that separates the gas from oil and natural gas deposits. Yet as natural gas prices have plummeted since late 2010, some energy mining companies have stopped the now-unprofitable helium separation process.

Making the economics for helium worse is a 1996 law that mandates a federal helium reserve -- kept in a huge government facility in Amarillo, Texas, since the beginning of the 20th century -- has to be sold off this decade. The law has caused the helium market to become inefficient, as producers see no reason for attempting to recycle the gas.

It's bleak, Gary Pielak, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told another CBS affiliate, North Carolina's WRAL-TV. The companies that sell natural gas have to decide whether they also want to recover the helium from the natural gas.

Lost to the earth forever

While helium is perhaps best known for its more innocuous uses -- filling up party balloons and giving people the ability to temporarily talk like cartoon chipmunks -- the non-renewable resource is invaluable in a host of other commercial users. It's used by deep-sea divers, NASA jet engineers and MRI technicians in order to safely operate various equipment.

Those uses are given priority by helium suppliers.

The way they are allocating the helium now, hospitals and stuff like that are on the top of the list, which is exactly where they belong, Donna Ryan, owner of Donna's Helium and Balloon Owner in Amarillo, told local KII-TV. Balloon helium is at the bottom.

But even those at the top could feel a pinch soon. Some experts are even warning of what was seemingly an unthinkable prospect not long ago, the element being depleted within a generation.

Robert Richardson, a professor of physics at Cornell University who won a Nobel prize for his work on the properties of helium, told Britain's The Independent the gas is being squandered and the world's total supply will not last 100 years under the current market structure.

Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever, he said