Science Says: Drop the Balloons!

Photo by Susanica Tam. Some rights reserved.

Helium: We know it as the second lightest element on the periodic table, and as the most stable element with the lowest melting and boiling temperatures. It’s also the second most common element in the universe (after hydrogen), but certainly not here on earth: unfortunately, another thing you might not know about helium is that it’s non-renewable, and our supply on earth is finite, and running out. In a darkly comedic (and also, of course, troubling) revelation, it turns out that we’re wasting too much helium in party balloons.

Helium is found in natural gas and created as a bi-product of the petrochemical industry, and is used to lower the temperature of atoms to make them easier to examine. The US stockpiled “billions of litres” of helium in the 1920’s when it guessed that it might be a valuable energy resource (to be used to power engines, airships and solar telescopes, for instance), but sold off the remainder in the early nineties, long after we had reduced its national role to a filler of balloons.

Over the weekend, the Guardian published an article exploring a truth that we’ve already known for some time: our irresponsibility in wasting helium has almost completely depleted our reserves, to the point where laboratories and research facilities have had to put projects on hold because they’ve run out of that most stable of elements (helium is also very important to scientific research, as it can be used to power extra-cold refrigerators). From the Guardian:

Professor Robert Richardson, of Cornell University, New York, who won the Nobel physics prize in 1996 for his research on helium, argues that a helium party balloon should cost £75, to reflect the true value of the gas used. Yet you can buy enough helium to float 200 balloons for that price. “We are squandering an irreplaceable resource,” he says.”

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