Is the world running out of helium? How did this happen? Why does it matter?


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Is the world running out of helium? How did this happen? Why does it matter?


Admit it, you've all done it at least once in your life...sucked in a helium balloon to make a hilarious, squeaky voice. At the time, it seemed harmless, but the truth is that helium is a natural resource, and the world is running out.


I work in a flower shop which also offers balloons as an "add on" to orders and about a year ago my boss informed me that our balloon prices were basically doubling, when I asked why, (because I predicted a lot of questions from customers regarding this change) he replied because of the helium shortage. I had no idea what he was talking about, and that is usually the reaction I still get when I tell customers that a Mylar balloon is now 6 dollars instead of 3. Or they laugh... So not only are we running out of helium, but people seem to be uninformed about the issue- which goes a lot farther than just a rise in prices.


index_04.jpg

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19676639


Helium is actually an important resource, not only used to blow up party balloons or help lift blimps. Helium is the most stable of all the elements, and it won't burn or react with other elements. Helium comes from underground pockets in the earth that got dislodged by oil and gas drilling (http://theweek.com/article/index/225856/is-the-world-running-out-of-helium

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/med-tech/why-is-there-a-helium-

shortage-10031229). To put it into perspective, we'll run out of helium in about 30 -50 years.


How did this happen?


In the early 20th century, air travel and airship-based welfare were expected to be heavily reliant on helium. Obviously, that didn't happen. I think the quote below gives a clear insight into what happened.


"As you can tell from the distinct lack of majestic blimps in the sky above you," says Eric Limer at Geekosystem, the future many envisioned in the 1920s "never really panned out." So in the 1990s, the U.S. began selling off its helium surplus, "at a relatively low cost, no less, for things like party balloons." (http://theweek.com/article/index/225856/is-the-world-running-out-of-helium)


I don't really see the logic in selling off the helium, because any natural resource that serves a purpose in various aspects of life should not be bargained off. And although it is the second most common element in the universe, it is extremely rare on Earth.


It may be rare of Earth, but there are gas giants in our solar system that are abundant with helium- why aren't we? According to this article (http://www.scienceminusdetails.com/2011/03/where-did-helium-come-from-or-jupiter.html), our helium is literally floating away. Apparently, it is believed that as a planet, we may have began with a lot of helium- similar to Jupiter and Saturn, but because our planet's element makeup is quite different then theirs because we are composed of oxygen, iron, and silicon mainly, we have a significantly less amount of mass compared to Jupiter and Saturn. Because our mass is so much less, we do not have enough gravitational hold on helium in the atmosphere, which is why helium is not abundant on our planet and why the small amount we do have is from underground.


Why does it matter?


Below, I've listed a few uses of helium that I believe explain why it matters:

(http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/energy/helium/helium_facts.html)


Helium is radioactive and therefore used for cooling nuclear reactors

Helium is inert and won't react, so it is used as a pressurizing agent for liquid fuel

rockets.

Medical uses - it is used in heart surgery, it is also needed to conduct an MRI.

A leak detection agent for extremely small leaks

Helium cools to -454 degrees F which allows scientists to study atoms

because they freeze and their vibrations slow down.

And finally, balloons and blimps are the last two reasons, although they are somewhat superficial if you ask me. And scientists are starting to agree (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19676639), in a BBC news article it seems that many scientists are speaking out about balloons being a "hugely frustrating....(and) absolutely the wrong use of helium" in comparison to several medical procedures like MRI scans that should take precedent.


How can we fix it?


We can obviously find ways to cut back, and give up our precious balloons.


In the future, we could have the technology to get Helium from off of this planet. Helium is a rare gas on Earth, but it is actually abundant in space. The moon as well as solar winds hold large supplies of helium. I think there are more solutions to this issue and we perhaps need to dig deeper on the root of the problem itself- it is over consumption? Mindless consumption? Or something else entirely? Is there a way out or a way to acquire helium from the gas giants? There is no doubt in my mind this is an issue, and an issue that concerns more than just balloons, because helium is used in so many ways we do not even realize and perhaps we did not even take seriously now. In class we recently discussed government intervention and the mistrust many people have pertaining to coverups and our discussion was mostly centered around extra terrestrials, but it could be applied here as well. Is it there fault for thinking we could use the "surplus" of helium that existed in the 1990s for recreation and profit? And if so, is it there responsibility to fix it? What are we going to do in the 30-50 years when we actually do run out? I honestly don't know, but I think we need to pay closer attention to the issue and find out before it's too late.



3 Comments

Wow! Thanks for such a well written blog. I think you really hit all the important points on the topic and I learned something new. I can't believe I didn't know this, I try to keep up with current events but I didn't know about this crisis. As I did more reading on the helium shortage I came across Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address, he said: "We propose to cut $130 billion in spending by shrinking departments, extending our freeze on domestic spending, cutting 60 public housing programs down to 3, getting rid of over a hundred programs we do not need like the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Helium Reserve Program." As much as I want to (and I think we all do) want to critique government intervention and blaming them for this shortage I don't think it is appropriate because there was no way in knowing that this will happen. We thought we would find an alternative by 2015. Who knows, maybe this kind of situation will happen in regards to global warming or a food shortage. We are always under the assumption that "We'll figure something out. By the time we have a shortage we'll have a better substitute." However, the clock is ticking and it's a scary thought that hospitals won't have the adequate supply of helium. We sure do need to do our part and ban helium balloons from our lives and inform our friends and family about this shortage. We can also write to our Congressmen and tell them to stop being ignorant to the situation and pass S.2374 -- Helium Stewardship Act of 2012. Again, thanks for teaching me something new, I will make sure to pass on the word.

Im actually surprised more people dont know about this. While I guess compared relatively to running out of gasoline is a much bigger issue, this one is more immediate and extremely important. The uses for helium, while they may not seem all that important, are extremely important in order for scientists to continue doing research and progressing and for medicine to progress. I feel as though this is a huge case of us not knowing the value of something until it's gone and then it will be too late. I wonder if there is an alternative element that we could use in place of helium? If not what would be alternative solutions to the problem we face. While helium is not necessarily essential to our lives right now, it is essential to our society, and not just for balloons.

Liam, I do agree that the gas crisis is definitely more salient and therefore seemingly more important to the public as well, but there are also even more issues that come along with the looming helium shortage I am continuing to discover. While doing further research on the matter, I came across, this blog which lead my the this New York Times article passed in May 2011. It focuses on a specific type of helium: helium-3. Helium-3 and the crisis surrounding it is best described in this introductory excerpt from the NY Times article, "a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program, but as the number of nuclear weapons has declined, so has the supply of the gas. Yet, as the supply was shrinking, the government was investing more than $200 million to develop detection technology that required helium-3. " So, we are running out of helium-3, but continuing to invest in weapon develop that would require it? It seems not only is there a crisis surrounding helium and helium-3, there is a crisis in the management of this department of our government. I know that defense is very important to maintaining a stable government both nationally and internationally, but I also believe that in order to make progress there must be cut backs from the usage of the byproduct of helium-3 and the overall usage of helium.

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