The Evils Of Helium Balloons…and why you shouldn’t use them this holiday season.
By Nicholas J Booth, on 3 December 2015
Tis the season to be Jolly! We’re into the time for celebrations, festive cheer and office parties, drinks, mince pies and holiday decorations. And yet using some of those decorations could have serious consequences for us in the future, I’m talking of course about the menace that is… helium filled balloons.
Helium and UCL have a long and entwined history. Sir William Ramsay first identified it on earth on March 26th, 1895, in his UCL lab (now an artist’s studio in the Slade School of Art) and it was this, along with his discovery of argon, neon, krypton and xenon, that won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1904. There’s a couple of labs named after him, and arguably without him our neighbouring area of Soho would look very different (as helium is used in ‘Neon’ signs).
Helium is an interesting element – it has the lowest boiling and melting point amongst all the elements, and as a gas is lighter than air (hence the terrible use of it in party balloons). It is relatively rare on earth – most of our helium coming from radioactive decay from (amongst other elements) uranium. It is so light that once released from the earth it floats off into space (unless it’s trapped before that). This means that once you empty that balloon, possibly into your mouth for that of so funny squeaking voice, it’s gone from this planet FOR EVER.
The US is currently the largest supplier of helium on the market, due to the discovery in 1903 of huge natural helium gas fields in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. At the time the residents of Dexter, Kansas, were looking for oil and gas for fuel and were let down to discover this “disappointing ‘wind gas’” which proved to be nothing more than a scientific curiosity. It wasn’t until the First World War, when a strategic use for helium was developed in it’s use in observation balloons and air ships, and the US began to build up a reserve.
If we fast forward to the late 1990’s we find that the US National Helium Reserve, having accrued massive debts, began to sell off its stockpile of helium. This had the effect of keeping the cost of helium low, and meaning that we could all afford to tie brightly coloured balloons to chairs and quote from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at office parties. However the source of helium is diminishing as the reserves are sold, and the cost is going up. Which would have serious consequences for the suppliers of party balloons, but not much else, if that was the only use for helium. But sadly readers that’s not the only use for helium.
Due to its low boiling point, helium is widely used as a coolant, and while this doesn’t sound that important, as coolant, it can be found in MRI Scanners, NMR Spectrometers and in the Large Hadron Collider. It’s also unreactive, so it can be used to provide an inert atmosphere for making fibre optics and semiconductors and it’s the mix of 80% helium and 20% oxygen that provides deep sea divers with the artificial atmosphere that keeps them alive under the waves.
Admittedly the helium used for balloons is a relatively small amount, but why with all these important life saving uses would we want to blow a finite resource (remember it floats off our planet when released) on party balloons which we use once and then instantly forget about? This isn’t a new issue, the Cambridge Chemist Dr Peter Wothers argued this in his Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in 2012, but I couldn’t find any evidence that balloon usage fell as a result of the publicity his appeal created.
Recently a team noted that helium seems to have been trapped in ground water by 135 million year old tectonic movements (that created the Rocky Mountains for example) and that this could help us locate future reserves. However this doesn’t really solve the issue of us wasting helium, it may just push the problem back in time a bit.
I’ll leave the final word to David Ward of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy…
Merry Christmas Everyone!
Nick Booth is curator of Science and Engineering Collections at UCL.