We’re Running Out of Helium!

5 September 2010

While working on the decorations of my kids’ school’s fund raising auction a while back, I was struck by how expensive helium has become. I found the cost had more or less doubled since the previous year!  As I was hunting for the most affordable place to refill our tank, one helium vendor informed me that the world is running out of it in its concentrated form. A little research unearthed some interesting facts, and although I’m no expert in the politics and economics surrounding non-renewable resources, I found these tidbits fascinating enough to pass on.

Second only to hydrogen, helium is the second most common element in our universe. It is found virtually everywhere! Everyone knows there is a fraction of helium in our atmosphere, but in such small proportions that we can’t feasibly extract it (5.2 ppm). Even if we were able to – by retooling the neon production to save helium – the process would only yield 0.1% of the world’s demand. The concentrated stuff we use, is a product of billions of years of radioactive decay, and distilled from natural gas. Natural gas deposits can contain up to 7% helium. Helium needs to be extracted simultaneously with the gas refinement process, or it will do what all kids learn when they lose grip of their balloon – forever disappear into the sky.

Almost 80% of the world’s tapped helium comes from large natural gas reserves in the American South. Since it was discovered to be useful to humans, it has been pipelined into the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, TX. After a decision made by the Bush administration in 2005, the Reserve is being sold off and is in the process of being depleted. According to Wikipedia, there is currently enough for 25 years of the worlds needs – or 35 years of the US’s needs. In other words, as in most things regarding rampant consumption – Americans are way ahead of the curve. At the rate we’re going, our planet will be virtually helium free before the end of this century.

As one of the noble gases, it has a number of useful properties – the lowest boiling point of all elements (457 °F), low density, low solubility, high thermal conductivity and inertness (which means its not chemically reactive). More than a fifth of our helium is used in cryogenic applications such as the cooling of superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors. Other worthy areas of use include arc welding, heart surgery, rare document preservation, growing of silicon and germanium crystals, titanium production, pressurizing agent for rockets, leak detection, isotopic dating, supersonic wind tunnels, etc.

In light of all of the above, using such a precious resource to fill balloons for a party suddenly seemed incredibly irresponsible and a downright ridiculous notion. It is contrary to everything I try to live by, and teach my children. We still used some balloons, but we filled them with air and used gravity to display them. Most importantly – the lesson learned was that there are ALWAYS options. Use the best one, and you’ll come out on top. And, in this particular case, under budget…


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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