Are We Wasting Helium On Party Balloons?

Helium – what’s it any good for? Helium makes balloons float and turns your voice a bit funny at parties, right? Well, yes it does have those properties, but helium is actually much more important than that. And, as a finite resource, is something we should be a little more careful with. Coming in at number two on the periodic table of elements, Helium doesn’t have the affinity for Oxygen that Hydrogen does. Had the Hindenburg been full of Helium, it would possibly still be gracing the world’s skies today. Helium is obviously good for sending things aloft due to its low density nature, and it is that very property that makes it a problem. While Helium is plentiful in space, it is not so on Earth, mainly because it drifts out of the atmosphere readily. Helium is formed as a by-product of radioactive decay within the Earth’s crust and is extracted and stored for future use. The majority of the gas comes from deposits below America and is bulk-stored in Texas. It is from here that much of the helium used in the Western World originates. But Why Should We Care? Firstly, when helium eventually runs out we might have to say goodbye to our party balloons. You could use hydrogen in our party balloons, right? You’re party would go with a bang, but it probably wouldn’t be the best idea. However, there are bigger and more pressing issues at hand. Recently, the wholesale price of Helium has risen sharply, spurred on by increasing use as it becomes an essential product in many emerging technologies. For example, Helium is used in MRI scanners and semi-conductor applications. And without these technologies we would find the future a lot darker. Helium is used to cool the super-conducting magnets in MRI scanners, and is also essential in the manufacture of computer chips. There is no alternative for both of these applications, and to run out of Helium would force a total rethink for these technologies. Helium is also used as a leak-detector agent in ultra-high vacuum pump manufacture. Without these pumps, which are used in many places from biological clean rooms to satellite manufacture, there would be major problems. Other resources such as oil and gas are dwindling too, but there have been concerted efforts to change our usage before we reach a crunch point. With so much depending upon this non-renewable commodity, many in the science world question whether it is right to waste helium in frivolous exercises such as party balloons. We are told that many processes would grind to a halt without Helium, and it seems that in this instance the party is almost over.

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