Is Helium a Precious Resource?

When French astronomer Pierre Janssen looked through his spectroscope on August 18, 1868, he became the first person to observe helium. If dire warnings come true, we could be the last.

The helium that fills party balloons is also a vital component in MRI scanners.
The helium that fills party balloons is also a vital component in MRI scanners.

David Cole-Hamilton, a professor of chemistry at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is sounding an urgent warning about our dwindling resources of this colorless, odorless, inert gas. He is urging people to go without helium-filled balloons at parties to help prevent supplies from vanishing within a decade.

Helium is essential for cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners, and it's frequently used in other applications of cryogenics, as a component of breathing gas for deep-sea diving, and as a lifting gas in blimps. Although helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, it cannot be manufactured on Earth. Instead, we must wait for it to be created through the radioactive decay of elements in rocks found deep underground.

Helium can, however, be recycled, which is what Cole-Hamilton is urging. "We are recycling it from the MRI scanners and most of it from deep sea diving, but we are not recycling from the balloons," he said. "Helium is very light, so if it gets into the atmosphere it can escape. If we recycle I think we would be fine, but if we gradually put more balloons up in the atmosphere, then the timescale will be shorter."

Helium: What a gas!

  • Inhaled helium makes a person's voice sound much higher because helium is far less dense than regular air.

  • It would take approximately 4,000 helium-filled balloons to lift an adult off the ground.

  • Helium turns into a liquid with superfluid qualities at temperatures close to absolute zero.

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