Physical Science Blog

Blow Up Your Own Balloons

We’re in the midst of a helium shortage, so let’s save what we can for science

February 6, 2010

Party balloons! Chipmunk voices! What fun! Hurray for helium!

Let me give you a tip: stop wasting helium.

I’m sorry to have to tell you this but we’re running a little short on helium these days. Like many of our favorite resources here on Earth, the helium supply is limited and not renewable. And a new report from the National Academy of Sciences has brought to light the concern we should have over our shrinking helium stores.

Perhaps you’re wondering why we should bother conserving what little helium we have left? No, we’re not saving it all up in case we need to do a large-scale relocation of senior citizens’ houses, a la Pixar’s movie, Up. No, that’s not it.

Helium has more going for it than just being lighter than air and fun at parties. It is vital to running some of the world’s most valued scientific machinery – all of which take advantage of the fact that helium can be cooled to a liquid just a few degrees above absolute zero. Hospital MRIs (for brain and body imaging) constantly need helium. Chemists depend on helium to figure out what the proteins in our bodies look like. And then there is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It would be a shame if the multi-billion dollar sub-particle racetrack went out of commission because we ran out of helium.

Truth be told, we can’t blame birthday hooplas and frat party antics for frittering all the helium away. These account for a just a tiny amount of the world’s helium consumption. In fact, until recently, few people were even aware of a potential shortage. That’s because in 1925 the United States set up a national helium reserve that stockpiled mass quantities of this element. Of course, at that time, they were expecting the blimp business was going to really, uh, take off.  We know how well that panned out.

But after collecting helium in the national reserve for 70 years, the government decided, under 1996’s Helium Privatization Act, that it was time to begin selling it all – probably to help pay off the debt the they incurred in gathering all that helium in the first place. Unfortunately, this big selling spree sent the helium market into an unexpected tailspin.  The price has skyrocketed and it is becoming difficult for many scientific organizations to get the helium they need.

Now, the report from the National Academy of Sciences, released on January 22, is recommending that the government slow down or even suspend the big helium sell-off. Let’s hope the government takes the advice. Ultimately, we need to ensure that some of it is conserved so we can continue to operate all those machines that depend on it.

And in the meantime, you can do your part by saying no to helium balloons. Every little bit helps.

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About the Author

Alyson Kenward studied chemistry at the University of Calgary. After five years of trying to keep yellow mixtures from turning orange, she decided it was time to swap her lab coat for a laptop and get down to the business of being a writer of all things science-related. Although she misses how her stir plates used to serenade her, she was happy to recall just how much she loves writing. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the central New Jersey wilderness.

Discussion

1 Comment

Dr. Kenward – thanks so much for this fantastic article. I hadn’t realized that the shortage still existed. I wrote about this very issue back in 2007 when my little girl asked me where helium came from and I couldn’t answer.

Keep up the great writing – I really enjoyed this one.

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