Helium: swollen stars, party balloons and squeaky voices

There are increasing reports of an imminent helium shortage, but why should this be a concern? What is helium used for, apart from balloons? Quite a lot, as it happens.

Helium supplies are running low. This is cause for concern for some. Others might wonder what the fuss is about.

The statement itself may seem bizarre in some respects. How can we be “running out” of the second most abundant element in the known universe? Mankind may have had a substantial impact on the planet’s resources, but using up a quarter of all known matter? Even the most extreme environmentalist would have to agree that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The atmosphere of Jupiter alone is about 10% helium. Let’s not even get started on the sun.

Obviously, the problem is we’re running out of accessible helium, meaning stuff we can access without leaving the planet. But, you may ask, what’s the problem? What do we really need helium for, aside from party balloons and airships? Neither of which are exactly crucial to our society.

A cursory bit of research reveals that helium is an inert, noble gas, meaning it’s largely harmless for humans in a chemical sense, in that it won’t poison you or anything because it’s so stable and unreactive. It just sits there, being a gas. Admittedly, too much of it can displace oxygen and cause asphyxiation, but that goes for all gasses which we can’t breathe (ie all of them except oxygen).

Helium can be indirectly deadly though. It’s unavailability lead to the Hindenburg disaster (helium doesn’t explode, hydrogen does). On the flip side, an excess of helium will eventually cause the sun to expand, likely ending all life on Earth. This is probably stretching the definition of “harmless” somewhat.

But that’s in the extremely distant future, what about the here and now? Surely society can function without party balloons?

It probably could, yes. But the consequences of losing helium are far beyond that. Its very inertness makes it integral to several processes like welding. Welding involves extremely high temperatures, in order to make the metals malleable. But at these temperatures atmospheric gases can interfere with the weld, weakening it and defeating the point somewhat. Using helium as a shielding gas prevents this. And welding is quite a common process, so uses a lot of helium.

Given its unique physical properties (it doesn’t freeze but remains liquid at absolute zero), it is extensively used in cryogenics (study and manipulation of materials at very low temperatures), which has an extensive variety of applications. This includes the manufacture of semiconductors, which are used in pretty much every device available today and have tremendous economic value.

The super-cooling of magnets via helium is also an integral process for the use of advanced scanners like MRIs. So as well as its more dangerous properties listed above, helium has also been a great boon to medicine and science. However, this is grating for neuroscientists like myself who like to moan about the questionable use of MRI scanners by the media and the like; not only does this promote bad science and dubious public understanding of the brain, but it turns out it’s squandering an important natural resource too!

Nasa also got through a lot of helium, in order to clean out space shuttle engines. It’s also used in helium balloons, which go some of the way to space. Appropriate that helium should help us get into space, when it was technically discovered there. Specifically, it was identified as an individual element in the emission spectrum of the sun, then found later on Earth. It makes sense when you look into it, but it does sound akin to Neil Armstrong discovering coal on the moon.

Its cryogenic use means helium could potentially be used for food preservation and power transmission. It also has numerous other uses.

So, in short, what would happen if we used up all our helium tomorrow? We’d probably experience serious negative consequences to our society, infrastructure and economy. It may get to the point that more helium is needed from off-planet, which would be a feasible option as long as manufacturing and space travel were unaffected, which they wouldn’t be.

Also, you wouldn’t be able to do that squeaky voice thing anymore.

Admittedly, there may be technical workarounds for all of these concerns, but having to actively implement those will still take a lot of time and effort, which will have knock-on effects.

So that’s helium. As a substance, it’s amazingly versatile for something so inert. We’ll sure miss it if it’s gone.

As an aside, the inspiration for this post is due to the fact that today is the first anniversary of the launch of this blog. Coincidentally, it’s my birthday as well. Because of one (or both) of these occasions, a friend has given a congratulatory balloon. It’s a lovely gesture, but I find I’m just sat staring at it float there, racked with guilt and paranoia because of all the info above.

I usually object when people say science sucks all the fun out of things, but now I’m starting to think that may be a valid point.

Tags HeliumNASA

Share this post

No comments

Add yours