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!