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Earth Medicine United Kingdom Science Technology

Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons 589

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.'"
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Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons

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  • 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 roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:42AM (#41427301) Homepage Journal

    So these 'academics' then should buy all the helium and preserve it if they are worried, because at this point the price for He is low and the market sets the price.

    This Richardson person wants the market to artificially increase the price of He by a factor of 20. Who is this dude that he thinks he can dictate to the world how it must use its resources?

    Let me put it this way, if the market decided to blow up the planet, nobody could prevent it, it would just happen. Using He for balloons may just mean that the planet will blow up later on because of more wars, who knows, but it's not up to anybody to dictate to all people how they should live and die.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 23, 2012 @08:54AM (#41427353)

    because at this point the price for He is low and the market sets the price.

    Did you even read the summary? The exact complaint here is that the market does NOT set the price of helium. The government is meddling with the market to make it artificially low. Similar to what they do with various other subsidies.

    If the market alone set the price, it would be much higher because it would reflect the actual scarcity of helium.

    I know reading the article is too much to ask, but for fuck's sake, the summary is RIGHT THERE on the page.

  • 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!!

  • 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 udachny ( 2454394 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:24AM (#41427511) Journal

    (/. comment limitation strikes again, thus my second account)

    They can try and dictate it, but the market always wins at the end, it's a law of nature, like gravity. You can fight it for a while, but you can't stop it.

    Any price manipulations will be met by higher prices but also by black markets, where the price will be set by the market given the conditions it has to operate within.

    In case of He production, it just may cease to exist altogether, after all, it's mostly extracted during natural gas mining process, so if the prices are set at a level where nobody buys the gas, then why should anybody produce it? It's ridiculous to believe that a company must collect a worthless resources like that (worthless, because it's unsellable and thus unusable). What, a company would build bigger and bigger, more and more expensive facilities to store Helium for the future use? 50 years into the future? It's not a metal, it's a very light gas, it's very expensive to keep around.

    Here, look at the natural gas prices [], set the time line to "Max". The prices are falling even in this manipulated inflationary economy, so this means the supply is plentiful given the consumption level (and it can't be stored and transported easily, like oil can).

    The end result of artificial floor at 20 times the current rate (which is what Richardson wants) would be near disappearance of the gas from the market, THEN the prices would go up much higher, not 20 times, maybe 1000 times or more, nobody knows, but here is what this will mean for people: MRI scans will become much more expensive and no more party balloons for kids, all while most of He will be just let out into the space. Congrats.

  • by chichilalescu ( 1647065 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:27AM (#41427537) Homepage Journal

    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.

  • by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:38AM (#41427601)

    The posting limit is there for a reason. It's Sunday: spend some time with the family, go out of the house and do something different. Maybe the quality of your arguments would be improved by some time away and a bit more selectivity.

  • by udachny ( 2454394 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:40AM (#41427609) Journal

    The ignorant comment that the AC made is moderated to +2 Insightful by people who also don't understand economics and don't know that US gov't was keeping prices for He artificially high for decades by buying up He from natural gas producers.

    The reason people could even start using He in balloons or whatever is because finaly in 1996 US gov't stopped artificially inflating (no pun intended) prices on Helium, because it stopped buying it from natural gas companies and even put it up for sale on the market.

    The market brought prices down to where they should be, which again, is an example of how normal market works vs gov't.

  • by Chysn ( 898420 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @09:45AM (#41427657)

    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.

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

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


  • 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 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.

  • Re:H! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @10:57AM (#41428207) Homepage

    No, helium exists even at the surface. But only at about 5 parts per million. But hey, we recover neon at 18ppm (it's rare for the same reason as helium - it escapes). Neon costs about $2k USD per kg. So to extrapolate linearly, you'd get about $7k per kg. Helium used to be cheaper, but today it's about $500/kg.

    On the other hand, you'd be using much larger volume production, and there may be some tricks to recover it more cheaply than just a linear difference would suggest, so perhaps more like $4k USD per kg would be achieved. One can hope that it won't be too dear.

  • 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 Alex Pennace ( 27488 ) <> on Sunday September 23, 2012 @01:07PM (#41429147) Homepage

    I am drifting dreadfully off-topic, but I have to ask: Was this incident what inspired you to choose the alias "flaming error?"

  • by TiggertheMad ( 556308 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @03:18PM (#41430095) Homepage Journal

    Mythbusters is pseudoscience at best. It's entertaining, which is its designed intent, but it galls me when Internet people hold it up as a paragon of scientific thought.

    Its good for non-scientists to watch, because it promotes logical thought and encourages testing of ideas.

  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @03:33PM (#41430235)
    The important question is not 'is it dangerous?'

    The question that sellers of balloon ask is 'could I get sued over this?'
  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @03:35PM (#41430253)
    The worst part is that it's probably the most scientific show on American television.
  • by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @05:19PM (#41431029)
    The reason they get respect is because they do science. They may not be the most accurate and exacting scientists,and they often make mistakes. But they still do science. The have a question, they make a hypothesis, they test the hypothesis, they analyze what happened and make conclusions, and they put the results up for peer review. And more than once they've gone back and revisited something because the result of that peer review was "you did it wrong."

    So they do science, and they make it fun, and for a lot of the things they test they don't need the kind of accuracy that "real" scientist do for "real" science. In fact i'd argue that they're at least as accurate as an average kid's science project for school, and are you going to argue that we shouldn't reach kids science in school because clearly they're not able to maintain appropriate levels of accuracy?
  • by narcc ( 412956 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @05:41PM (#41431141) Journal

    The reason they get respect is because they do science.

    That is precisely what they do not do.

    You know what bugs me? The science cheerleaders who don't know the first thing about science -- though they think they do -- repeating total nonsense like it's gospel.

  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Sunday September 23, 2012 @11:49PM (#41433249)

    Next you'll claim asleep doesn't mean without sleep.

If it's not in the computer, it doesn't exist.