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What did 2He Every Do For Us? Balloons!

How smart is Homo Sapien Sapien?


How stupid is Homo Sapien Sapien?

Before you answer those questions, let’s consider Helium (2He).

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, hydrogen being the most abundant. Helium is also the second lightest element in the universe. While making up 24% of the total elemental mass it is, relatively speaking, rare on earth.

Helium found on earth is created by radioactive decay and is trapped in natural gas. It is extracted from natural gas for commercial use through a process called fractional distillation which is a low temperature separation process. We have a finite amount of helium on earth and once we release it into the atmosphere it escapes into space.

Most helium reserves are located in the United States, but reserves also exist in Russia, Poland, Algeria, and Qatar. The demand for helium rises between 5% and 6% each year. At present U.S. usage of known helium reserves will be used use up in 58 years, “and less than this (perhaps 80% of the time) at world use rates.” 

Here how we use helium:

  • As breathing mixture essential in treating asthma, emphysema and other breathing aliments.
  • For growing silicon and germanium crystals.
  • For gas chromatography, which is used to analyze the content of chemical products, assuring quality products in the chemical industry, measuring toxic substances in the air, soil and water.
  • In supersonic tunnels and impulse facilities.
  • In gas tungsten arc welding.
  • For industrial leak detection.
  • In lenses and telescopes – helium reduces the distorting effect of temperature differences in-between lenses. It is particularly used in solar telescopes.
  • Helium dating measures the age of rocks and minerals.
  • In cryogenic applications – the cooling of superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
  • For observations in quantum mechanics.
  • In fuel for NASA’s  Apollo program, shuttles and in the Saturn V rocket.
  • Helium-neon lasers – used for reading bar codes and laser pointers before being replaced by the diode laser.
  • As a heat-transfer medium in gas-cooled nuclear reactors.
  • In thermoacoustic refrigeration.
  • In airships.

And perhaps mostt importantly, helium is used

  • To make the human voice sound like squeaky cartoon chipmunks in an old and better forgotten film.        
  • In party balloons.       

From Wikipedia: Helium (, helium reserves are running low and could be used up in somewhere between 11.6 years and 58 years. People have become enough concerned that the search is on for new helium deposits and the good news is that natural gas is all the rage right now. But the bottom line is that helium is a finite resource.

At present scientific research is beginning to feel the pinch with delayed and cancelled procedures that require the use of helium. So far I haven’t read that the party balloon industry is suffering. Robert Richardson of Cornell University won a Nobel physics prize in 1996 for his research on helium. He is  arguing that a single party balloon should cost around $115.00. In the current market that amount of money would fill 200 balloons. Poor Professor Richardson thinks we are “squandering an irreplaceable resource.” 

He’s not along. The chemist Peter Wothers at Cambridge University is calling for the complete ban of helium filled party balloons. 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.'" Presently party balloons are responsible for 5% to 7% of the total helium usage. It doesn’t seem like a lot unless you need an MRI and the slow delivery of helium has caused a delay.

So image in 60 years your welding company goes bust because of lack of helium. Or your breathing ailment worsens because of the lack of 2He. Or, you are given a choice. You can get your young daughter an MRI scan that may result in saving her life or you can get her dozens of helium balloons for her birthday. However, you can’t get her both. What to do? What to do?

I know I’m crazy, but helium balloons annoy the hell out of me.

Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

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