Helium is rare. It is not produced in factories, and the places where it is found in the wild are unusual. When it gets lose, it tends to drift out into space. Simply put, it is a hard to find commodity with a limited availability. Helium is important in science. Big Science Projects like the Large Hadron Collider use Helium to cool magnets down to near absolute zero. Helium is also used in MRI machines, which have become an important part of medial research and diagnosis. Without a supply of Helium, a lot of important science projects would be in trouble.

From the BBC:

Prof Welton told BBC … “We’re not going to run out of helium tomorrow – but on the 30 to 50 year timescale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don’t do something in the mean time.”

… “The reason that we can do MRI is we have very large, very cold magnets – and the reason we can have those is we have helium cooling them down.

“You’re not going into an MRI scanner because you’ve got a sore toe – this is important stuff.

“When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.”

For this reason, Welton and others as asking the question, should we be using Helium for uses such as making children’s balloons float?

The balloon industry counters, noting that “Balloon Gas,” which is what they call their product, is made of Helium recycled from medical uses and mixed with air, and that very little research grade Helium, if any, is lost to the process of engineering children’s birthday parties. I suppose, though, that they could use hydrogen for the parties. It would make Chuckie Cheese a more…interesting…place.

Who says science doesn’t have enough controversy!

Comments

  1. #2 gwen
    September 24, 2012

    I wondered about that too. It seems to be remarkably inexpensive for such an important gas. Especially since we can’t make it. Yet?

  2. #3 Artor
    September 24, 2012

    Someone had that idea at a rally in Armenia recently.

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/05/04/exploding-hydrogen-balloons-at-armenian-political-rally-injure-many/

    We should totally switch to hydrogen for kid’s balloons! What could go wrong? Just keep the candles at least 100 feet away.

  3. #4 MadScientist
    September 25, 2012

    Hydrogen is a perfectly good balloon gas and is used throughout most of the developing world – of course you have to take some precautions with the stuff and my bet is that there’ll always be some moron who deliberately puts a light to a hydrogen balloon.

    Even if party helium is recovered from medical facilities, helium is fairly easily purified to the level required by the big magnets – it’s not as if the ‘recycled’ helium is not useful to science.

    My personal favorite is to increase the number of fast breeder reactors to produce more helium and reprocess more power reactor fuel, but I doubt that’ll be done. Nope – my bet is that we see helium supplies go down. Some clever person’s got to think of a helium-free method of cooling low-temperature superconducting supermagnets.

  4. #5 MadScientist
    September 25, 2012

    @gwen: It’s somewhat inexpensive because at the moment there’s actually a huge amount being extracted. The stuff just oozes out of oil fields primarily in the USA. Helium is an alpha particle that picks up electrons so it’s actually a product of nuclear decay; US oil fields just happen to have trapped an awful lot of the stuff. Anyway, what does come out during oil extraction simply has to be compressed and sold. There are no facilities to store huge amounts of helium for use in the distant future; since there is no hoarding, the current large supply keeps the gas somewhat affordable.

  5. #6 Eric Lund
    September 25, 2012

    @MadScientist: I also had the initial thought that, in principle, it is easy to purify helium so that it can be reused in medical applications. (That it has a much lower boiling point than anything else is a major plus.) But it’s not 100% effective (helium will slip out in places where other molecules won’t, which is why one of its uses is as a leak detector), and if recycling costs more than using fresh gas, people will go for the fresh stuff.

  6. #7 mikeg
    September 25, 2012

    why won’t somebody think of the chipmunk voices

  7. #8 Fotograf
    http://www.ritterfoto.de/index.php/leistungen.html
    September 25, 2012

    Isn’t Helium is used to baloons to fly? Man I like it and think all the kids are.

  8. #9 MadScientist
    September 26, 2012

    @Eric: Yes, while the fresh stuff is cheaper, people will use that rather than recycled helium so I doubt many labs use recycled He. At some point in the future it will be economically viable to purify and recycle He. I think the biggest problems with the idea people have to raise the He prices are (1) if scientists pay that higher price then there’s less money for research and (2) raising the prices does not address the future scarcity issue because we have no facilities for long-term storage of He extracted today and since He is essentially a byproduct of oil extraction, we can’t really say “let’s keep that He in the ground and tap it later”.

  9. #10 F
    September 26, 2012

    Ohmygodno – hydrogen in toy balloons? If one were accidentally* ignited, it might, I dunno, knock over a leaf or something.

    *Accidentally. Yeah, right. Kids with hydrogen-filled balloons and “accidental ignition”.

  10. #11 Greg Laden
    September 26, 2012

    I remember hoping as a kid that Helium would explode like Hydrogen (both low atomic number, both start with H, both in balloons) and I tried to make that happen. Turns out it’s inert.