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…