Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Earth Medicine United Kingdom Science Technology

Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons 589

Posted by timothy
from the stop-thinking-of-the-children dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "BBC reports that Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College, London, believes that a global shortage of helium means it should be used more carefully — and since helium cools the large magnets inside MRI scanners it is wrong to use it for balloons used at children's parties. 'We're not going to run out of helium tomorrow — but on the 30 to 50 year timescale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don't do something in the meantime,' says Welton. 'When you see that we're literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it's just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.' Two years ago, the shortage of helium prompted American Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson to speak out about the huge amounts of helium wasted every day because the gas is kept artificially cheap by the U.S. government and to call for a dramatic increase in helium's price. But John Lee, chairman of the UK's Balloon Association, insists that the helium its members put into balloons is not depriving the medical profession of the gas. 'The helium we use is not pure,' says Lee. 'It's recycled from the gas which is used in the medical industry, and mixed with air. We call it balloon gas rather than helium for that reason.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons

Comments Filter:
  • by For a Free Internet (1594621) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:26AM (#41427237)

    There is a lot of Helium in the Sun, so go to the Sun and get some and bring it back. Dear Laura: Wowza, you look great!

    • by reboot246 (623534) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:04AM (#41427405) Homepage
      The sun is pretty bright and hot. We'd have to go there at night.
  • by cellocgw (617879) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <wgcollec>> on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:30AM (#41427249) Journal

    There may be a free-market solution. Let's float a trial balloon and see how everyone reacts.

    • by kerrbear (163235) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:37AM (#41427277)
      The solution is to use hydrogen instead! It was good enough for the Hindenburg.
      • by Opportunist (166417) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:24AM (#41427517)

        And what a lesson about the dangers of smoking it could teach our kids!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:44AM (#41427643)

        The Hindenburg was designed for helium, and hydrogen was only used because supplies of helium were withheld from the operators for political reasons. If the Hindenburg had been designed with hydrogen in mind instead of inert helium the accident may never have happened.

        I'm not going to say using hydrogen in a dirigible is a good idea but hydrogen shouldn't be completely written off as an operational substitute for helium because of one fiasco in the 1930s.

        • by tgd (2822) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:50AM (#41427691)

          The Hindenburg was designed for helium, and hydrogen was only used because supplies of helium were withheld from the operators for political reasons. If the Hindenburg had been designed with hydrogen in mind instead of inert helium the accident may never have happened.

          I'm not going to say using hydrogen in a dirigible is a good idea but hydrogen shouldn't be completely written off as an operational substitute for helium because of one fiasco in the 1930s.

          The Hindenburg, and all the other Zeppelin airships had also done hundreds of trips for years, even with hydrogen.

          The incident is burned into the public psyche not because it was particularly horrorific, or because it was some example of bad design held up for criticism -- its notable for one reason only. It was the first case of broad media overhype. It was the great-grand-daddy of all the shit we see on the "news" today.

          • by Jessified (1150003) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:56AM (#41428199)

            I think that hydrogen birthday balloons together with birthday candles would be a lot of fun.

            • by flaming error (1041742) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @11:37AM (#41428503) Journal

              Damn straight.

              My dad was from a small town in the southwest founded by his ancestors, a town whose major industry was farming tumbleweeds, juniper, mesquite, and other naturally occurring firewoods and tinder. Fireworks were understandably illegal.

              Most residents were kinfolk in some way or another, including the town marshal, who, many years ago, not knowing us out-of-staters well, misguidedly invited us to his son's birthday party.

              Uncle Buzz was fairly skilled at extracting hydrogen from mixing household chemicals, and was pleased to offer his services in inflating a small flotilla of balloons for us. We saw no need to disclose to the good Marshal they were filled with gas less noble than Helium.

              Come time, we all sing happy birthday. Young Sam blows out the candles, and we lit the balloon strings and released the bundle.

              That kid's all grown up now, but he tells me he never had a better birthday present.

              We still haven't been invited back, though.

          • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @04:01PM (#41430473)

            The incident is burned into the public psyche not because it was particularly horrorific, or because it was some example of bad design held up for criticism -- its notable for one reason only. It was the first case of broad media overhype. It was the great-grand-daddy of all the shit we see on the "news" today.

            Actually, it was publicized for the same reason the Titanic sinking was -- a bunch of rich people died. There had been other airship accidents, and other naval accidents, but it wasn't newsworthy because nobody "important" had died... until then (respectively).

      • by Ken_g6 (775014) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:40AM (#41428083) Homepage

        Exactly! Use liquid hydrogen to cool the large magnets inside MRI scanners.

        Liquid hydrogen boils at 20.28 K. MgB2 [wikipedia.org] superconducts at 39 K. (So neon would also work, but it has problems similar to helium.)

        • by mrmeval (662166) <mrmeval@noSPAm.gmail.com> on Sunday September 23, 2012 @01:25PM (#41429261) Journal

          Hydrogen embrittles metals. There are some alloys that can mitigate the embrittlement but it's easier to use helium.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          When cooling superconductors, there is more than just passing the critical temperature. In addition to there being a critical temperature above which superconductivity stops, there is a critical magnetic field that will stop superconductivity if exceeded. Lowering the temperature even further beyond the critical temperature will raise the critical magnetic field, allowing more current to flow through the wires and stronger magnets to be made with less material. There are plenty of devices where you will

      • by Sqr(twg) (2126054) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @11:14AM (#41428327)

        This is indeed a good idea. A baloon filled with hydrogen is not much more dangerous than one filled with air. If you hold it over a flame, it will make about the same pop as an air-filled baloon. The 0.3 g of hydrogen in a baloon is not enough to produce any serious amount heat as it burns. (We did this back in high-school chemistry class. We had an awesome teacher.) Hydrogen is cheaper than helium, and does not diffuse as easily through the baloon surface, so baloons would last longer.

        There is some danger in the handling of cylinders. If hydrongen leaks out in a room with poor ventilation, there is a risk of explosion. However, the same is true for propane/butane gas which is used in kitchen stoves, and most people seem to be able to handle that.

        Another danger is when stupid people inhale baloon gas and asphyxiate. With helium, this problem is commonly solved by adding some oxygen to the mix. Hydrogen cannot be safely mixed with oxygen, so you'd either have to tell the stupid people not to do that, or accept a slight decline in the stupid population as they figure it out for themselves.

  • H! (Score:5, Funny)

    by opusman (33143) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:32AM (#41427253) Homepage

    Using hydrogen for childrens' party balloons would solve the problem and make things potentially much more exciting!

    • Re:H! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Longjmp (632577) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:39AM (#41427287)
      Especially if you mix hydrogen with oxygen at a ratio of 2:1
    • Re:H! (Score:5, Funny)

      by slashdyke (873156) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:39AM (#41427289) Homepage
      I would agree with that except for the question of how much more helium would be needed as a result of the parties? Balloon pops, bursts into fire, house burns down, people sent to hospital in need of medical attention... I think we need a study to anaylize just how many additional MRIs would be needed as a result, so we can determine if we would be saving helium in the long run. Anyone have a few hundred million to invest in such a worth study?
      • Re:H! (Score:5, Informative)

        by Rei (128717) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:22AM (#41427921) Homepage

        This guy is living in a fantasy world. Helium use as a lifting gas in *all forms* is only 7% of helium use. Of that, party balloons are just a fraction. MRIs, on the other hand, use up 28% of helium consumption. And how could they possibly use so much? Because they do essentially nothing to recover it as it boils off.

        Perhaps they should clean up their glass house before they start throwing stones?

        Also, it's not like helium will become unavailable as we use up current stocks. It'll just increase in price by 1-2 orders of magnitude as we have to switch to getting it from chilling it out of the atmosphere in tiny quantities, the same way we recover other nobel gasses (but requiring more concentration). Now, of course that sucks, but it means that people who run MRI machines and do other such tasks will be forced to clean up their acts concerning helium recovery instead of simply casting blame on others.

      • Re:H! (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @11:39AM (#41428523)

        The answer is don't make helium for sale to party stores.

        The legitimate users of helium would have no problems going through the necessary actions to prove they have a need to buy it - after all buying an MRI is an enormous expense. But it's ridiculous that helium - an inordinately valuable resource at the moment - is just being sold off for parties because the US strategic reserve of the stuff is being dumped onto the market by Congress.

        We all benefit from it being cheap, but only if it's used responsibly.

        There's no pressing need for lighter-then-air gases to be a feature at parties at all.

    • by guises (2423402)
      For a while I was thinking that could actually work - if something happened you'd get a little flare up, nothing too dangerous. But...

      http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/05/04/exploding-hydrogen-balloons-at-armenian-political-rally-injure-many/ [rawstory.com]

      apparently it doesn't work out so well if you use a lot of them. I'm not sure there's a good solution for this, might just have to wait for advances in materials. Carbon fiber vacuum balloons could work maybe... Maybe. They'd have to be pretty big though.
      • by evilviper (135110)

        Hydrogen is flammable, but slowing combustion is simply a matter of mixing it with some other gas that interrupts oxidation. Race car tires are filled with Nitrogen so that a blow out won't feed a fire. Carbon dioxide is also a common industrial gas which displaces oxygen.

        Here's a list blatantly lifted from WP:

        Reduction of heat:
        HFC-227ea (MH227, FM-200),
        Novec 1230, HFC-125 (ECARO-25),
        FS 49 C2

        Reduction or isolation of oxygen:
        Argonite / IG-55 (ProI

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by b1scuit (795301)

          Race car tires are filled with Nitrogen instead of compressed air because compressed is rife with water vapor, which expands when it heats up. This changes the pressure inside the tire, which can drastically affect handling characteristics over the course of a race, which is a Bad Thing. Using Nitrogen to fill the tires negates this, it has nothing to do with fire safety.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:36AM (#41427275)
    Hurry up and get those fusion plants up and running!
    • Re:"Simple" Solution (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:00AM (#41427387)
      "Interesting"? "Insightful"?
      I'm touched, but I was joking. We'd never get a significant amount of helium before we boiled all our oceans in waste heat.
  • 'balloon gas' (Score:5, Interesting)

    by queazocotal (915608) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:39AM (#41427285)

    The notion that because gas is only 90% pure, it is useless to the medical profession is rather ridiculous.
    Refining this gas back to 99.99% helium is almost trivial, compared to extracting it from sources where the helium content is in parts per million.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:40AM (#41427291)

    If there isn't a renewing source of helium, why hasn't all of it escaped into space yet? It is small enough to even seep through solid containers, given enough time. If the US has a stockpile of the stuff that it's selling off, how did they acquire it? Can't they do it again?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:50AM (#41427337)

    This is just a small item, but it goes to a bigger theme, as a 26 year old, I have been told that I cant have a nice life style because its bad for earth or a waste of resources or bad for your health.

    Because of cow pies, we are supposed to eat less red meat, or ideally none at al!
    because of global warming (which I do think is real), Im supposed to drive a tiny little car that has a hard time going over 60 MPH
    Because of health concerns, I shouldn't salt my food to taste, or eat sugary treats,
    Because of speculation in the market and salarys not going up with inflation, the nice home that cost my parents the equivalent of about 2 years post tax post med insurance take home pay will now cost me 4 years of the same.

    And now I cant even get my kid a ballon for their birthday? What the fuck is this? Its almost like the west is becoming the new third world. I just want a decent life like my parents and their parents had. The sickest part is the people telling us we shouldn't have the good life use exotic luxuries private jets and limos. Its an outrage!
     

    • by cyborg_zx (893396) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:54AM (#41427719)

      Waaah!!!! First world problems suck!!!! Fuck starving people; where's my helium balloons?

      Hilarious.

    • by AK Marc (707885)

      because of global warming (which I do think is real), Im supposed to drive a tiny little car that has a hard time going over 60 MPH

      You can go 120 mph or so in a car rated at 50 mpg or so (though not getting that at 120 mph). I drive a 1.3l that goes 60 mph with ease, so long as it isn't loaded up with 5 adults and going uphill. Though for hills and passing it does make lots of noise and doesn't accelerate briskly at those speeds. In fact, the tricks that improve mileage mostly improve efficiency, and thus aren't tradeoffs for acceleration at 60 mph, but improve it (aerodynamics, engine efficiency).

      Because of health concerns, I shouldn't salt my food to taste, or eat sugary treats,

      In general, if you aren't pre-dispo

  • by cirby (2599) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:54AM (#41427357)

    Build more helium extraction plants in natural gas refineries.

    Really.

    The reason helium was (relatively) cheap was that the US built a nice large extraction plant at a natural gas field with a very high concentration of helium. That field is starting to run out, so prices are naturally going up.

    Helium is not, however, limited to that one field. There are many other natural gas fields with varying concentrations of helium, and all you need to do is add a cryogenic helium extraction plant to a natural gas refinery to pull that helium out of the existing gas feeds. This is already happening in a few places, and with current technology, it's not that expensive to build more plants. It's only cost effective in a field with higher concentrations of helium - but there are quite a few of those.

    The United States has proven helium reserves of about fifty years... and unproven reserves of about a thousand times that. ("Proven" means "we know it's there," and "unproven" means "we're pretty sure it's there, but haven't gotten around to it yet for economic or legal reasons").

    • by imsabbel (611519) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:00AM (#41427757)

      Actually, not quite.

      The reason helium is cheap is becaue the US had a HUUUUUGE strategic stockpile during the cold war (many times the total yearly helium production, IIRC), that is being sold off, massivly pushing down the price.

      And it is not that easy with the reseves. Helium shortages are a reality! I have colleques that could not fill their helium cryostats because Air Liquide told them that currently they cannot deliver, as hospitals got first priority and the supply was to thin for weeks. They ended up renting a truck to carry dewars from the other end of the country!

      • by rubycodez (864176) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:07AM (#41427809)

        which has nothing at all to do with the balloon gas grade crap being sold for children's balloons. the only shortage we have is because most helium is vented at wells. The amount used in balloons is miniscule and doesn't matter either way. This stupid professor is advocating symbolism over substance.

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:59AM (#41427383)
    I have a feeling that as soon as helium got expensive, we'd suddenly have all kinds of good ideas about how to recycle it more effectively. I mean, it's a noble gas, it's not like it gets "used up" in any medical or industrial application! I know it can escape through even the smallest cracks, but it doesn't seem so hard to build some kind of secondary containment around medical imaging machines. Separating helium from air is trivially easy with a gas centrifuge. This could probably be done on site.
  • by XB-70 (812342) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:02AM (#41427399)
    Let's make this a learning experience for kids: rather than use helium, sell (or make) home hydrogen production kits.

    Making a little hydrogen at home (enough for a few balloons) solves the problem of having tanks of potentially explosive gas around.

    Also, if hydrogen catches fire, it burns UP, not down. It can also make a fun way to end the party: light the balloons with the birthday candles!!

  • by adosch (1397357) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:06AM (#41427411)

    Balloons are every kid's enjoyment for birthdays, special event or talking like an oompa-loompa, fun-hater Tom Welton. Good luck explaining that Hellium is essential to MRI equipment because it's low boiling point and keep magnets cool to kids who just want a Mylar balloon that says "Happy Birthday".

    I think we need to reevaluate what's wrong and focus research towards re-engineering MRI machines or use different mediums to cool these differently. I've seen this in the news for almost the last decade and if it's such a dilemma. What's that famous Albert Einsetin quote? "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      kids will have fun whenever the adults give them the attention they deserve. including when they will be forced to play with balloons filled with regular air.
      please think before you teach your kids to be wasteful.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Chysn (898420)

      We should redesign medical equipment and phase out existing medical equipment because we don't want to explain the lack of helium balloons to children? I think your priorities are a little out of whack.

      How about we use the helium for the MRIs, and teach children not to expect floating balloons. Balloon animals are a good alternative, if balloons need to be involved at all. I've got four young kids, and they're pretty easy to please.

  • Summary: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by folderol (1965326) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:16AM (#41427469) Homepage
    Scientists with long-term humanitarian concerns have independently suggested there may be a problem. Commercially supported organisation with short-term financial interests says there isn't.
  • by pubwvj (1045960) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:22AM (#41427503)

    This is all about pricing. If it is really a shortage then the price goes up and people waste less. The free market really does work - as long as government's are messing with it by subsidizing things. Eliminate the low cost availability of helium from the US government, and probably others, and then the price will float up to it's natural higher level. Demand will drop as will consumption.

  • by Underholdning (758194) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:02AM (#41427771) Homepage Journal
    "When you see that we're literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it's just hugely frustrating". Well, it's a good thing we're not burning fossil fuel by letting cars run around in a circular track, round and round, just for the heck of it.
  • by Attila the Bun (952109) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:04AM (#41427789)
    The grade of the helium is entirely irrelevant. The helium used to cool superconducting MRI magnets is recycled over and over: it doesn't wear out, and impurities are automatically removed during the liquefaction process. Wasting "old" helium is just as bad as wasting fresh.
  • by MrKaos (858439) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:21AM (#41427917) Journal
    in a ridiculous helium voice saying "is this an inappropriate use of helium?"
  • a drop in the ocean (Score:4, Informative)

    by mothlos (832302) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:41AM (#41428085)

    No time to dig up the figures, but I encourage folks to actually look at the useage rates of helium. The military is far and away the greatest consumer followed by medicine and commercial uses. Party baloons are a small fraction of use and loss of helium in the economy. This doesn't even mention how much helium is lost due to non-capture from hydrocarbon gas deposits simply because it isn't economical to do so. This is the same sort of small-minded thinking which makes people think that if we all just recycle our home waste and set the thermostat a few degrees lower than we will solve environmental problems. Please stop busying people with activities which reduce demand for actual solutions.

    • It is easier to charge the public more or ban something wasteful like children's balloons than it is to get the military or industry to do anything. Remember, the military and industry have a history of KILLING PEOPLE rather than change their ways - and you want them to change over a small resource supply problem? The military complex can't even stop wasting money when we run out of money.

  • by PerMolestiasEruditio (1118269) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:54AM (#41428189)

    Helium is also available from the atmosphere for several $1000/kg. So we won't run out.

    Most Cryogenic applications like MRI magnets can use Hydrogen 14K or Neon 24K instead.

    But I agree save the helium for more important uses.

    Instead use Neon - its a renewable resource from the atmosphere, and would only cost about $300/kg of lift or a couple of $ per balloon - not much worse than helium, and well within typical retail margins, also won't leak away as quickly.

    For bigger lift applications use methane. Dirt cheap, commonly available, not poisonous, less leaky than hydrogen or helium and would work fine for most lift applications. Downside is flammability, though far less dangerous than hydrogen, and rises quickly in air to disperse in an accident. A party balloon with 4 litres would only release 100kJ when burnt - though that is more than the 20kJ from an equivalent hydrogen balloon. It is much harder to ignite methane - only ignites in a relatively narrow range of air-methane mixes, spanning about 4-15%, vs hydrogen 4-75%

  • by 109 97 116 116 (191581) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @11:37AM (#41428497) Homepage

    First off, this was last reported in March in the UK's Guardian as well.

    More to the point, the US Gov. had a surplus of it from the 1920's that it sold off much of in the late 1990's so part of this is self imposed.
    Also, much of current day helium is being used for vacuum chamber leak testing for semiconductor production, aerial surveillance balloons,
    UAV's and regular old heli-arc welding in factories and shops all over the world.
    I'm guessing the use for the surveillance balloons and stockpiling to support them is more to blame than any number of little party balloons.

    What you're seeing is a lag in time from the Fed Gov's helium privatization program where private industry has not yet ramped up production
    to meet a decades standard level of consumption.
    Not some scientists opinion where little kids balloons are affecting a world resource market.

  • by couchslug (175151) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @04:01PM (#41430469)

    Decorative balloons are pure waste, from plastic to filler gas.

    Helium is vital for welding in pure and mixed-gas processes, for example. Welding is far more important even than medical uses.

    The solution is to attack the idiotic custom of party balloons, or fill 'em with compressed air then hang them in place.

    One bright spot is that commercial gas providers often deny helium to non-industrial customers due to the shortage.

    (Keep an eye out for full or partially full helium cylinders on Craigslist . I've bought 'em cheap then sold the contents to desperate gift shops then exchanged the empty cylinders for argon and mixed gas for my welders and made money doing it.)

  • by Kaenneth (82978) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @05:09PM (#41430983) Homepage Journal

    Childrens party ballons are filled with MEDICAL WASTE?

Make headway at work. Continue to let things deteriorate at home.

Working...