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How Party Balloons are Depleting One of Earth’s Most Valuable Resources

How Party Balloons are Depleting One of Earth’s Most Valuable Resources

Imagine a rare and scarce natural resource, existing only in limited quantities here on Earth. Found primarily as a byproduct of petroleum production, this substance is essential for many medical tests (for example, MRIs) and for important, and expensive, scientific research.  It was deemed so valuable for much of the last century that it was strategically stockpiled by the US government from 1920 to 1990.

And now, scientists and doctors are starting to run into shortages. They’re cancelling and delaying research projects – some are even talking about the future need to capture more of this element from solar winds above the atmosphere, or even start mining for it on the surface of the moon.

What is this precious, nonrenewable resource, and why are we running out of it?

It’s helium. And, according to a number of scientists interviewed in The Guardian, if helium were being priced fairly, those colorful balloons at your 10-year-old’s birthday party should be going for about $120 each. The stuff is that valuable to medicine and science.

While there is still helium in the world, the US government stockpile of the gas has dried up. Prices are starting to rise as the gas becomes harder to obtain. And what will happen when all the natural sources have been exhausted?

Oleg Kirichek tells the Guardian about a project at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory that was cancelled when the facility ran out of helium:

“It costs £30,000 a day to operate our neutron beams, but for three days we had no helium to run our experiments on those beams,” said Kirichek. “In other words we wasted £90,000 because we couldn’t get any helium. Yet we put the stuff into party balloons and let them float off into the upper atmosphere, or we use it to make our voices go squeaky for a laugh. It is very, very stupid. It makes me really angry.”

Professor Jim Wild agrees:

“Helium is particularly important for running super-conducting magnets. These have to be cooled to -270C to operate, and liquid helium does that perfectly. These magnets are now widespread and found in machines that range from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva to MRI scanners in hospitals,” said Professor Jim Wild, of Sheffield University. “Without helium, none of these machines would work. Unfortunately that threatens to be a real prospect in the near future.”

I don’t know about everyone else, but when presented with the choice of being able to easily and affordably obtain a needed medical scan in a few decades, or having colorful balloons at my next party, I think I can do without the balloons. But obviously, there’s no simple solution – how many consumers are aware of the fact that this is even a choice they’re making? News coverage of how the shortage is affecting retailers doesn’t even mention the fact that we may run out of helium completely within the next 30 years.

So what’s the answer? Is it, as some suggest, raising prices and effectively ending non-scientific uses of helium? Should helium balloons be banned? What do Care2 readers think?

 

Related stories:

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Photo credit: Tijmen Kielen

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149 comments

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9:42AM PDT on Apr 9, 2012

Grazie delle informazioni. Non lo sapevo.

5:57PM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

Carl N. said "And it does NOT take 4 billion years to make some He - it constantly spontaneously appears as alpha radiation."

Hm-mm; no, helium does not just "spontaneously appear." Alpha radiation is the product of alpha decay of certain isotopes of heavy nuclei, predominately uranium and thorium, which are are neither universally distributed close to natural gas repositories nor infinitely producing of alpha particles.

Carl N. said "It is mined from natural gas since He generated in rock ends up in the same reservoirs as the natural gas."

Only SOME gas repositories contain significant concentrations of helium.


9:50AM PDT on Mar 28, 2012

MRI's are needed to safe human live and/or to give people the comfort of knowing what the hell is wrong with them! Medical testing could save millions of lives in the future and you're telling me the US Government knew this was rear, nonrenewable and valuable yet they released it so that people can use it in balloons?!
For gods sakes I'm sure every country in the world can do without floating balloons in favor for conserving a live saving gas. It's really not complicated, very simple actually tell everyone to take their balloons and stick them!

1:11PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

if this is true it should that why the germans were useing hydrogen for their blimps because they could not get helium and we would not sell them any and we know what happened then

12:29PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

Our family and the schools where my husband and I taught stopped using helium-filled balloons or having balloon releases because of the dangers to birds and animals. Now here's another good reason not to use them. If you're determined to have balloons for a party, try blowing up balloons the old-fashioned way...by literally blowing them up...kids absolutely have a ball doing this. You can let the air out of the balloons after the party...but you still have the issue of how to dispose of them in a way that doesn't risk critters getting to them or affecting the environment in other ways.

12:21PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

Thanks for the article. I didn't know about this.

5:52AM PDT on Mar 24, 2012

Megan - the reason congress decided to get rid of or at east reduce the strategic reserve of Helium was most likely money. To begin with it costs money to purchase the resource to put into a strategic and secondly the value of the strategic reserve is capital that isn't really doing anything, so nobody is really interested in having a reserve that is strictly larger than it has to be.

And given the huge US budget deficit even more so - do you really want the US government to ask China for more loans in order to keep or increase the US strategic Helium reserve?.

1:56AM PDT on Mar 24, 2012

IF the poll question up there had said let's ban balloons (and plastic bags..) to cut down on polluting our oceans and wilderness ~ then I WOULD have voted Yes! But it's simply not so..

AS I wrote earlier, this story still reads too much like a premature April Fools Day prank !

Helium is never created nor destroyed under these circumstances, in the uses described in this thread ~ as with hydrogen it is ALWAYS there, maybe in a different place or form, but still hanging in there...

A few non-scientific persons are spewing forth a load of nonsensical rubbish among these comments ~ as "William K." so rightly pointed out, leaking He from party balloons simply escapes back into the atmosphere ~ it hasn't been used up nor wasted..

Also: Helium is NOT an energy source to be used as a fuel, either ~ it seems somebody here is confusing it with hydrogen.

Removing balloons from the big picture means removing LESS THAN 5% OF He BEING USED anyways, to simply then be consumed elsewhere in the industrial supply chain..

JUST goes to prove how many gullible and uneducated would-be "do-gooders" are all-too-willing to jump the gun without doing their homework first.

4:23PM PDT on Mar 23, 2012

Holy crap! I've always hated the practice of releasing balloons outside, simply because it's harmful to wildlife and it's just littering, but I had no idea about this issue. It's the second most common element in the universe! I thought that was one resource we didn't have to worry about. Well, I'm glad to be made aware, thanks.

6:11AM PDT on Mar 23, 2012

I am so glad I came across this article because I not know about the Helium shortage, its usages in medicine and science or the stupid stupid congressional decision to get rid of the supply that the government had wisely collected. Even though I did know that balloons could be eaten by small animals and sea life (and therefor stopped buying them), I always thought that balloons were a bit like bubble gum... it might stay awhile longer but it would eventually move through their system. I had no idea how dangerous they really were. I am going to step up my efforts to get people to voluntarily use some alternative to balloons thanks to this article and the well informed comments here.

BTW Does anyone know their reasoning for congress making such a stupid and irresponsible decision? Having their reasons for doing this in the first place might give us a chance to successfully argue to the current congress that this old decision was wrong and should be reversed. But to do that you have to turn their own logic back on them.

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