We all love helium balloons, don’t we? Pretty floaty things that cheaply cheer up a dreary event room for hire… Personalise them and someone will feel a little warmer around the heart – Happy 80th Birthday Grandad! Dennis and Dave’s Wedding! Poppa’s Little Princess! Give your loved one a heart shaped balloon for Valentine’s Day… awww….
And then, when we’ve had a few glasses of wine, there’s the added fun of undoing the balloon and breathing in the helium, and speaking in a weird high voice for a few sentences. We’ve all done it, it’s ridiculous and very very funny.
Except I now feel a little bit guilty about that innocent bit of fun, because now I know that helium is an incredibly rare and marvellous gas and maybe I shouldn’t be using it so flippantly.
Helium… hmmm… this is one of those subjects that makes me wish I’d paid more attention to my science lessons in school. But I was a giddy musical geek who gave science up as soon as I possibly could. So bear with me.
Eek, it’s getting a bit sciency!!!
Helium is one of six noble gases. The noble gases are all called noble because they are incredibly stable, and helium wins first prize as being the most chemically inert element yet discovered. It won’t blow up or become corrupted with other gases. If helium were a person, it would be the Dalai Llama: stable, adaptable, brilliant, admirable, noble, but unrepeatable when it’s gone. (That’s entirely my flight of fancy – please don’t tell any scientists you’ve met. And if you’re a scientist, pretend you haven’t read it.)
It’s also the second lightest of the gases. Hydrogen is lighter, but you wouldn’t want hydrogen balloons at your party. Students of 20th Century history will know of the terrible tragedy of the Hindenburg, the German passenger airship that blew up in 1937, killing 36. The jury’s still out on what actually started the fire, but certainly the hydrogen used to lift the dirigible was highly flammable.
Strangely, in spite of being the second most abundant gas in the universe, here on planet earth, helium is one of the world’s rarest elements, making up about 0.0005% of the earth’s atmosphere. It’s harvested from underground, from fields of other gases as a by-product of those gases.
Helium’s lightness is its downfall – or perhaps I should say, it’s upfall – because the minute it hits the surface of the earth it vamooses into outer space. Gravity has no effect on it. Whoosh, and it’s gone. That’s why it’s so brilliant for party balloons.
It’s put to better use in MRI scanners, where it acts as a coolant for the superconducting magnets that produce those astonishing images of your insides, and which have become such vital diagnostic tools.
It’s a key component of the tanks that deep-sea divers wear – mixing it with oxygen helps prevent them getting “the bends”. Without it, the Large Hadron Collider wouldn’t exist. Not only that, I’ve had to end my dreams of making my fortune smuggling radioactive materials because I’ve discovered that Helium-3 can aid in detecting neutrons from a long distance. It really is the most miraculous stuff.
Since helium is so scarce and non-renewable, scientists and manufacturers are very keen that we don’t waste it. Only 14 plants around the world produce helium for sale, in the following countries (and in order of quantity produced) – USA, Qatar, Algeria, Russia, Poland and Australia Some of those plants only produce tiny amounts.
The USA did have huge quantities which had been stockpiled in the Federal Helium Reserve, but the stocks outstripped the demand for so long that in 1996, the US Government decided to get rid of its surplus, and cheaply.
However, as more and more uses have been found for this wonder gas, it’s become more expensive. From 2007 to 2017, the price went up by 250%.
In July 2017, the blockade of Qatar by a large group of other Arab countries meant the second largest supplier of helium was suddenly unable to sell or shift it out of the country. The blockade continues.
If that can happen, one can assume that those few other sources might not be much more reliable. Algeria is hardly a model state. We live in an age of political instability. In August 2017, the EU was so concerned about stocks of this vital element that it added helium’s name to the list of Critical Raw Materials. And who’d have thought that the President of the United States might threaten trade wars all over the place?
This is all in spite of the fact that a huge reserve of helium was discovered in the Rift Valley, Tanzania in 2016. You’d think people in the know would have been rejoicing and dancing in the street, but they’re still worried. Supplies have not yet come on stream, and the price of helium rose 10% in the month after the find.
Sadly, Tanzania is bedeviled by corruption and political instability. The democracy established in 1994 that made the country so attractive to international investors for thirty years has proved tragically fragile, and the current president, John Magufuli, has rapidly transformed the country into a dictatorship of the usual depressing brutality. You know the kind of thing – corruption, people disappearing, mutilated bodies turning up on beaches.
Okay, the quantity of helium found in the Rift Valley is very considerable, and it gives the world a great big breathing space (in a funny high voice). But more and more uses are being found for the gas. Yes, there will be more helium deposits found. Higher prices of the gas will encourage more gas fields to harvest it from ever tinier deposits instead of letting it escape into the atmosphere as happens now. Labs are finding ways to recycle it, and there is always the prospect of mining for it on the moon.
But wouldn’t it be a bitter irony if we couldn’t have a vital MRI scan in 20 years time because we’d squandered so much of this marvellous stuff on party balloons?
What you will save
It depends if you’re planning Macy’s parade or having a party for three-year olds. Hobbycraft online offer a Helium Balloon bundle for £28. For that you get a helium canister, 10 white latex, 10 neon and 10 assorted balloons, a packet of Unique Party Iridescent Curling Ribbon, and 6 Black Foil Balloon Weights. No information is given about what to do with the empty canister, the iridescent curling ribbon and the foil weights… hmmm…
Helium balloons come in three types. Foil (known in the US as Mylar), latex and Macy’s parade. The foil balloons are nasty little bastards, and have caused an enormous number of serious power cuts (or in the current rather ugly language, power outages). It’s cos they float away, innit, and when they come into contact with power lines, they can cause a power surge or a short circuit. Result – fires, melted electrical wires, power cuts, possible injuries, damage to properties, and enormous inconvenience all round.
If and when they bypass the power lines, they just float on up and up and up, expanding as they go. At about 7,000 feet, they often explode, or float into the countryside. Death Valley is apparently littered with thousands of spent party balloons. Lovely. Especially as they’re not biodegradable. So many reasons not to buy the little buggers.
I can’t leave without mentioning Lawn Chair Larry, the Californian daredevil who strapped a load of helium-filled weather balloons to an aluminium garden chair and shot up to 16,000 feet, drifted into LAX airport airspace, and finally came to earth on Long Beach having done a ton of damage to some power lines en route? Here he is, lifting off…
Just in case you’re tempted to do the same thing, the notoriety destroyed him. He seems to have only had sporadic employment, and finally shot himself through the heart in Angeles National Forest.
Ooh, the things I have found out since starting this blog…! I dragged that photo (sorry, but at least I’m fessing up) from a website called findagrave.com. It was uploaded by Scott Michaels, I’m presuming he was the photographer and I’ve written him a nice email to tell him I’ve used his snap and I’ll pay him if necessary. What interesting hobbies some people do have!