It can make party balloons fly and make your voice hilariously squeaky, but helium has some more practical applications as well. Considering its extremely low freezing point, helium can be cooled to temperatures of -270 Celsius (-454 Fahrenheit) and used to operate superconducting magnets in its liquid form, superconducting magnets used in things like MRI scanners and the Large Hadron Collider. Its widespread casual use (balloon-flying and squeak-voicing) however, is rapidly depleting the Earth’s finite supply of the noble gas, and scientists are getting more than a little miffed.
Recently, U.K.’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory had to cancel a rather important experiment intended to explore the very structure of matter because the lab was out of helium. The lack of helium did not only delay the experiment by three days, but actually incurred a fairly large monetary cost. Neutron beams, on which the experiments where scheduled to take place, cost around $50,000 a day to run and because of the helium outage, three days of scheduled experimental time was lost. “In other words we wasted £90,000 ($143,091) because we couldn’t get any helium.” Oleg Kirichek, leader of the affected research team told The Guardian. “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.”
Now, party balloons probably aren’t directly responsible for the outage at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, but they certainly are a huge part — potentially the entire part — of the larger problem. The recent outage has drawn attention to the issue, which has been developing for a while now. Helium, despite being the second most common element in the universe, is rare and finite on Earth, and found almost exclusively during gas and oil drilling. Pockets of the gas are sometimes punctured, at which point the gas rises to the surface and is collected.
For the past several decades, there’s been a relative abundance of helium, which has contributed in part to wasteful use of it. In the 1920s, the United States saw helium as a possible strategic resource and began stockpiling the inert, lighter-than-air gas for future use in fleets of airships, domestic and military alike. As you can tell from the distinct lack of majestic blimps in the sky above you, this future never really panned out, and so the surplus of helium began to be sold off and used, at a relatively low cost no less, for things like party balloons.
Considering that our relationship with helium, both culturally and economically, has historically been based on a stockpile which is rapidly depleting, the helium market seems to be speeding towards a rapid change. Should the helium supply on Earth become scarce enough, it may eventually become cost effective to actually mine the Moon rocks, which absorb a fair amount of the noble gas. As amazing as it would to have an established Moon-mining operation, the cost of bringing many research projects and medical procedures to a grinding halt is pretty huge. The cost of giving up party balloons? Not so much.
- Kind of recontextualizes this edible, flavored helium balloon, doesn’t it?
- And this real-life version of the house from Up
- And the wasteful-in-its-own-right HP “Wishes In The Sky” campaign