The world is running out of helium because people are obsessed with party balloons

In the very near future, the world is going to have to make a decision. We either want helium for party balloons, or we save it for scientific and technological uses that benefit mankind. Because our current supply is running out, and helium is not a renewable resource.

Just 150 years ago, humans discovered helium, which is produced over millions of years by the radioactive decay of uranium. Soon enough, we began using precious gas in a variety of ways.

“All kinds of scientific breakthroughs, from the discovery of the Higgs boson to the creation of new pharmaceutical materials, are dependent on helium,” American Physical Society science policy manager Mark Elsesser told National Geographic.

It is used to manufacture smartphones and is a critical component to keep MRI machines in hospitals running. It is also used in scuba tanks to prevent divers from getting “the bends.”

With all of these important uses that benefit our daily lives, one would think people would not want to waste helium. But people apparently believe we have a never-ending supply of it and have no problem using it for wasteful party balloons for birthdays and parades, many of which will just float away and kill birds in marine environments.

In fact, humans have used so much of the non-renewable resource for ridiculous reasons that party supply companies such as Party City have been forced to close their doors because of shortages that are sending prices upwards.

“Helium supply has always been a little up in the air (pun intended),” the company stated on its website. “With only three sources producing 75% of the world’s helium, any disruption causes a significant impact. Currently, helium supply is very low while demand is growing… Because of this global helium shortage, the fulfillment of balloon orders may be affected at your store. We’re working to replenish the helium at the affected stores as more supply becomes available.”

Again, using it for party balloons is a complete waste of a resource that is finite. Once it escapes into the air, it’s so light that it leaves Earth’s atmosphere, making it too difficult and expensive to recollect. The way we currently collect it is through natural gas production.

Practically all of the helium sold today is a byproduct of the natural gas industry, since some of the rock formations that catch hydrocarbons also can stop helium in its tracks. Each year, the world goes through about 6.2 billion cubic feet of helium: enough to fill more than 10,000 giant balloons like the ones you’d see at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

That’s a lot of helium, and the sad part is that most of it is wasted on party balloons.

The impending depletion of current supplies is forcing scientists to find a way to recycle helium into a sustainable resource that can be used over and over again, but that research is going to take time. Meanwhile, people will hopefully realize how limited of a resource it really is.

“This initiative gets people to be aware of it as a true nonrenewable resource,” Washington University chemist Sophia Hayes says.

“Industry and scientists are going to be really creative,” helium industry consultant Phil Kornbluth added. “If we get to the point where we just can’t keep up with demand, either prices will go up to create new incentives to find more, or we’re going to develop substitute technologies that don’t rely on helium.”

The United States government also contributed to the problem by passing the Helium Privatization Act, which forces the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas to sell off remaining reserves at a very cheap price. As a result, our reserves are winding down as demand increases.

The government needs to start building up our reserve again and stop selling it off cheap so businesses like Party City can no longer waste it on balloons. As people, we need to recognize that this resource is too valuable to waste on frivolous pursuits and preserve what we have left for what we actually need it for. Because a modern world without helium is going to be a more complicated and expensive world to live in.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.
 

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