Most people know helium as the gas that you inhale to make your voice sound funny. It’s a cool thing to do with party balloons. It’s also needlessly depleting one of the world’s most precious resources.
Helium is found underground and is considered a finite resource; once we have pumped the well dry, that’s it. No more helium. This poses a major problem to the medical and nuclear industries, who rely on using helium in its liquid form.
“Helium exists as a liquid about four degrees above absolute zero. At those temperatures, all electrical resistance disappears,” explains Dr. Keith Griffiths, associate professor of chemistry at Western University. “That’s important because if you have machines that have huge magnets, and what we’re talking about here is magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] machines, to keep them powered up constantly would require huge amounts of electricity. But if you don’t have electrical resistance, you only have to put in an electrical current once and it stays there.”
Simply put, without liquid helium, hospitals will have to find another way to power MRI machines, an incredibly valuable piece of equipment used to diagnose a whole gamut of ailments. Nuclear power plants also use helium as a nuclear reactor coolant, used to remove heat from the reactor core and transfer it to electrical generators and the environment. The depleting of helium reserves is an issue that continues to balloon in size.
“It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, and it may not happen in yours, but we are going to run out of helium. And that means something else will have to take its place, and right now we don’t know what that will be,” Griffiths adds. “How will MRI machines be run? Other than plugging them in all day, there is no other option at this point.”
If helium is running out, why can you go to a store and buy a bunch of balloons for ten bucks? It’s because the US hasn’t stopped selling off their reserves at a cheap rate. Professor of physics at Cornell University, the late Robert Richardson wrote in 2010, “the US government established a national helium reserve in 1925, and today a billion cubic metres of the gas are stored in a facility near Amarillo, Texas. In 1996 Congress passed an act requiring that this strategic reserve, which represents half the Earth’s helium stocks, be sold off by 2015. As a result, helium is far too cheap and is not treated as a precious resource.”
This means that every time you decide to have some fun with helium-filled balloons, you are further depleting a valuable commodity. It would be nice to be able to secure helium from the sky, but Griffths says this simply isn’t feasible.
“Helium is escaping all the time. Because it’s such a tiny atom, they move at tremendous velocities once they are in the air. In fact, their velocities are so high that they escape the velocity of the earth’s gravitational field. Once helium is released into the atmosphere, it actually just disappears into outer space. It’s gone.”
The next time you consider purchasing helium-filled party balloons, just remember that there are far more important uses for it. Someday it could be your grandchildren who needs an MRI scan from a machine powered by who-knows-what. Maybe this time we can settle for those balloons filled with plain old air.