science sustainability

There goes the helium balloon

The helium balloon, it turns out, makes a rather striking symbol of our attitude to the earth's finite resources.

In the movie Up, an old man ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats away in search of the legendary Paradise Valley. This is not a good idea in real life, and not just because you’d be a danger to aviation. You’d also be consuming a vast quantity of helium, and this would make of Cambridge University rather cross.

“The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue” he says. “I can imagine that in 50 years’ time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons’.”

Helium is abundant in the universe, but scarce on earth. It forms during the radioactive decay of rocks, but most of it then floats up and leaves the earth’s atmosphere. What remains is trapped in natural gas and can be extracted with it, but usually in small concentrations.  Since we can’t currently make it artificially, it is essentially a finite resource.

Helium is stable at extreme temperatures and has some important uses, most notably for cooling the superconductor magnets in MRI scanners. It is also used in cryogenics, welding, and various technical process such as gas chromatography. About 10% of the world’s helium goes into airships and party balloons – too much, according to scientists and doctors who’d rather it was saved for more important things.

We’re 30 – 50 years away from running out of helium, but and has disrupted research. To make matters more complicated, the US has been selling off its national reserves of helium and confusing the market. The national helium reserve began in the 1920s to safeguard supplies for airships. Its strategic importance didn’t last long, but the stockpiling continued regardless, and the plant in Amarillo eventually held a billion cubic metres of helium.

Having accumulated most of the world’s helium with no particular purpose for it, in 1996 the US government decided that it should gradually sell it off. Unfortunately it opted to do so at a below-market fixed price, and it’s that low price that has confused matters. It doesn’t reflect the rarity of helium or the speed of depletion, but it has quashed any incentive to try and increase production or innovate around alternatives for the gas.

The fixed price will run until 2015, and hopefully future reserve sales will be priced to reflect the realities of helium depletion. Some scientists would like to see more robust action and are calling for a ban on helium sales to the general public, making sure that what remains of the earth’s helium stocks is used for medical and scientific purposes.

Whether they’ll get the ban remains to be seen, but it’s something for us to consider the next time we’re at a fairground, confronted with a bouquet of bobbing Mickey-Mouse heads. The helium balloon, it turns out, makes a rather striking symbol of our attitude to the earth’s finite resources.

8 comments

  1. As I read this my thoughts formulated and then there they were in your last sentence. Will we ever learn to cherish all of our environment. Even when we produce things artificially (just the word artificial bothers me), we require earth’s resources. I know we are all directly responsible in degree, but we so badly need the main controllers to unite on the recognition that we only truly help ourselves by helping everyone from the bottom up. Even if we are optimisitc that we are heading in the right direction, can it really be fast enough? Is the time (too) late? Is there more we can do to unite? Sorry Jeremy, same old question from me!

  2. General comment on the blog usage Jeremy –
    Just recently (few weeks), I keep recieving e-mail requests from you to ‘FOLLOW’ each time i post a comment EVEN THOUGH i tick both the notify me boxes below my comments as i post it! Last time i did this i began getting two of each original post. I notifed WordPress, then lost all my history of comments (48 over last year), and began recieving old posts and comments from years ago, before I’d ever subscribed. I haven’t been able to retrieve my old comments history which is a shame, but al least I’m not doubling on each post and don’t seem to be getting old ones. I don’t want it all to go awry again. Can you tell me if i must nowadays click the new e-mails to follow comments (after I’ve already checked the notify me boxes below my comment), and, if not, can you stop them arriving?Thanks.

  3. So in other words, a government didn’t let the market do its work and price helium correctly. Therefore because it was under priced it has been overused and alternative suppliers have been unable to compete. I often think the US government is so incompetent to show how good the free market it when allowed to do its thing.

    We don’t need rationing, we just need a free market set price. I expect that will be higher so it will discourage frivolous use (fewer party balloons) and encourage the development of substitutes (for example higher temperature super conductors which wouldn’t need helium cooling). Scarcity dives up price and makes the search for alternatives more worthwhile. When we ran out of whale oil to put in our lamps, we didn’t live in the dark, someone found an alternative in the form of paraffin.

    Also good thing we are finding more natural gas in shale, we can then pull the helium out of it.

    1. Yes, we do have a habit of giving subsidies and tax breaks to non-renewable resources, and thus holding back the adaptation and diversification we need – see gas and oil in particular.

      The US fixed price is due to end in 2015, so hopefully there will be a more balanced market after that. Long term there may still be a problem, as helium percentages can be vanishingly small in natural gas, but we won’t be able to tell how serious the problem is until the market distortion is ironed out.

  4. As with a lot of things, the information that gets published can be misleading. You article reports that 10% of helium is used for airships and party balloons, now I’ll not dispute this even if it dosn’t agree with other information sources I have read, however there are a few factors that it dosn’t mention. The helium used in these applications is often not the same quality of helium that is used in industrial applications, it is almost a waste product where the cost of extracting the helium molecules from the rest of the contaminants would make it too expensive. So the alternative to using it in the airship and balloon applications is to just vent it to atmosphere.
    Many of the industrial and medical applications, use the helium and then it is just discarded, where it could actually be recycled and reused.

    As your article says the helium industry is confused and complicated, not just in pricing but also in the supply, applications, and delivery of helium. I have spoke to different members of staff from different gas supply companies and there answers to some basic questions don’t always agree, in some cases they actually contradict each other.

    Thanks
    Jim

    1. Thanks Jim, that’s interesting. I’d heard there was high grade and ‘balloon grade’ helium. I guess part of the problem is that if helium is too cheap, it would be uneconomic to purify it for use in medical or scientific purposes. If the price of helium reflected the rarity of the gas, it would encourage recycling.

      It still might make helium balloons much more expensive and therefore less common, but I suppose that depends on how complicated the purification process is.

      Thanks for filling us in on the complexities.

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