Professor Walter G. Campbell
30 July 2014
What Goes Up Is Rapidly Coming Down
The main decoration for many parties is contributing to the extinction of the Earth’s second most abundant element (“The Element Helium”). Helium, a natural gas that was found on the sun before it was on planet Earth is declining rapidly due to the many uses humans have become accustomed to helium providing (“The Element Helium”). There are extremely important benefits of the human use of helium such as its presence in arc shields that allow things such as power wind tunnels, pressurizing rocket fuel tanks, and medical MRI’s (“Helium“). Krule and Prywes state that, “No other gas is as light without being combustible. Those properties, as well as its very low boiling point and high thermal conductivity, make it indispensable for aerospace engineering, deep-sea diving, and cryogenics.” However, a great percentage of helium is falling victim to the overuse through mediums such as party balloons and voice manipulation. Within the next forty years if helium use is as consistent at is remains to be today, the world will no longer possess the noble gas named helium (“Witchalls”).
Helium derives mainly from underground gas pockets in the Great Plains, allowing the United States of America to remain relatively in control of the commercial helium production (Krule and Prywes). According to the National Academy of Sciences, helium consumption grows at a four percent increase each year, yet the prices have remained relatively constant for helium throughout the years. In 1925 the United States created the National Helium Reserve in order to prepare for zeppelin warfare (“Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve”). However, the agency in charge of maintaining the reserve, BLM, was sitting on a plentiful amount of helium by 1996, but also an extreme amount of debt of 1.6 billion dollars (Krule and Prywes). Encouragement to creep out of debt was to begin selling bits of the helium in the reserve to private companies.
In the past, when the United States has allowed reserve contents to be distributed, they have restricted the distribution to times only categorized as an emergency (“Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve”). Helium for financial reasons was different. The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 approved by Congress allowed for the United States to essentially sell the entire helium reserve in order to recover debt (“Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve”). The price to sell helium was set to an amount that was precisely how much they needed to become debt free, with barely any profit resulting. This is why helium remains so cheap today. There is this whole entity that helium is a renewable resource because if not the government would not let us be using this much of it for this low of a price (Malik). Take gasoline for an example to compare the price of helium to. It is about three dollars and forty cents on a good day per gallon. Helium balloons however can be found for sale at less than one single dollar bill.
Now that the history of the nonflammable, lighter than air gas named helium and the way at which it is priced has been set forth, the ways in which it is unnecessarily used and contributing to the irreversible extinction of the noble gas will exemplified. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is practically like having a pool full of precious liquids that is drained in a matter of hours, except it instead of liquid, the item at hand is helium. “The 16 parade balloons require about 300,000 cubic feet of helium combined. Assuming a drugstore balloon is 1 cubic foot (that’s being a bit generous) that’s 18,750 drugstore balloons for each parade one” (Krule and Prywes). On average, the parade is murdering 300,000 cubic feet of helium to provide shape to the giant balloons. Is watching a gigantic batman full of precious and endangered element particles float down a street really the best way to celebrate thankfulness? Instead of realizing what is left of the helium reserve and using it sparingly for the good of the people through devices such as MRI’s that are powered by helium, Americans decide that the best way to pay their gratefulness to the element is by using a heinous amount to provide larger than life cartoons. This just does not seem to be environmentally acceptable. Would the government allow hundreds of endangered animals such as polar bears to be publically slaughtered for millions to watch? No, I do not believe that would be accepted. However, helium is an endangered element that is used excessively during the parade. Helium may not have a heartbeat, but that does not mean it should go unnoticed or fall into the category of being desensitized to the urgency of the element’s survival.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade does not have trouble finding an overindulgent amount of helium, however universities have lost technologically advanced tools due to the shortage of the element. In July of 2012, the director of research instrumentation, Martha Morton, was affected greatly due to the helium shortage and lost a 600-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance tool that was used primarily to study the structure of molecular compounds (Reisch). Helium was the necessary element to keep this magnet running at sub-zero in order to be effectively used for scientific advancement studies, but unfortunately began to leak out of the system. With a desperate need for a quick fix of a large amount of helium, Morton fell burdened to the helium shortage. Unable to obtain the amount she needed, the rest of the instrument simply boiled off to pieces resulting in the $500,000 magnet being irreversibly useless (Reisch). How can a corporation such as Macy’s be given enough helium to supply gigantic floating cartoons, but universities and scientists cannot obtain enough of the element to keep their technology advancing instruments powered?
I began to wonder if important institutions cannot obtain helium has resulted in the devastation of smaller and even local businesses that sell party materials, helium balloons being amongst the products available. I contacted “Balloons and Things!”, a party store specializing in decorating parts via the medium of balloons to inquire if they have been affected by the shortage of helium. The person I spoke with on the telephone was reluctant to reveal a great deal of information, but gladly directed me to take a look at the announcement on their business website. After arriving at their homepage, I scrolled to the bottom and read the following posted in bright red bold lettering: “**MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT** There is a WORLDWIDE HELIUM SHORTAGE which is driving the cost of helium up and the supply of helium at an all time low. Please consider this when making your orders. There are many non-helium filled designs that can be used to create FABULOUS decor for your events. Come in for a consultation or Call us at 804-201-0540. Please be prepared to provide your credit card for FULL PAYMENT on all orders called in over the phone. We CAN NOT blow up your order until it has been paid in full. Thank you for your attention to this matter.” This is first hand evidence that the helium shortage is a crisis that is affecting many in negative ways. Society can no longer ignore the fact that in a short amount of 40 years, helium may cease to exist along with all of it’s valuable uses.
While it’s pleasing to see that a smaller business that relies partly on the more trivial uses of helium such as balloon inflation are taking a stance to inform the public on the issue, larger corporations are not adequately announcing what is at stake when purchasing a helium filled balloon. For example, WalMart still sells mass quantities of helium tanks that individuals can use to blow up fifty party balloons for forty-two dollars. The description for the tank on WalMart’s website advises that one should recycle their helium use, but that is not a practical or efficient matter that can be carried out at this time in the world. When confronted about the mass use of helium during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade a spokesman for the company claimed, “they are inflating balloons with combinations of helium and air to cut down on helium use. But, the technology is currently not there yet to reclaim the gas in a meaningful way” (Krule and Prywes). In addition to the admittance that recycling is not a resolution to the shortage at hand, Peter Gifford, the president of a manufacturing company for helium recycling equipment called Cyromech states that a proper system for the recycling of helium costs approximately $100,000 (Reisch). The company produces equipment that can recycle helium in the set amounts of 15, 22, or 60 liters of helium which barely scratches the surface when in comparison of the actual hundreds of liters such institutions that would purchase this system use, therefore making the recycling systems for helium impractical and expensive (Reisch).
So, if helium is at risk for becoming extinct on planet Earth and recycling is not a viable option, the matter must be taken into the hands of those with the knowledge and a desire to spread the word about the helium crisis. At this moment there is no easily accessible group, club, or organization that is standing against the overuse of helium and spreading the word about the precious element helium, that “is an indispensable commodity for many high tech uses including MRI machines, semiconductor manufacturing, the NASA program and fiber optics”(“Conservation Group and Energy Company Reach…”). Instead of waiting for a grand idea to come into play and fix the crisis, society must rise and take timely action upon the matter. I have taken the opportunity of this widespread audience on the world wide web to create an awareness page, that can be joined by clicking here. If the government and corporations are lacking this greatly at dispensing the information on helium’s critically low supply, then the citizens must rise to the occasion.
With the use of helium for balloon inflation being at 13% of the United States of America’s overall use of helium, it is time to take responsibility and nurse the element back to great vitality. Each time there is a balloon floating away in the sky or a child grabbing a free balloon from the net in some Kroger shopping centers, remember the vital uses of helium such as MRI and NASA equipment. Without helium, scientific research will be hindered at extraordinary levels given that the main use of helium, still only 32% of the total use, is for cryogenics, an important tool for scientific studies in physics dealing with very low temperatures, in the United States of America (Watson). It is up to the inhabitants of the third planet from the sun, earth, if it is more important to have stretched out pieces of plastic floating with helium inside or extremely important medical and scientific tools.
I for one find it astonishing that almost every person I have come into contact with is not yet aware of the helium shortage being experienced worldwide. No longer can I watch the planet be stripped of such a resource for something as trivial as a helium inflated balloon. I believe it is completely necessary to now act in forms of protest and boycotting businesses and corporations that endlessly supply helium balloons to the public. To hinder this heinous action would be effective in not only spreading the word to the public about the crisis, but also in diminishing the enormous 13% usage of helium balloons. Media is an effective way to spread the word throughout the web, so I have created a visual, available by clicking here, that delves more into what the average person can do to catapult the worldwide spread of knowledge that helium should no longer be used to inflate balloons when there are so many greater and by far important uses the element can be applied to. According to Newton, simply put, what goes up must come down. The use of helium is on the rise and it must come down just as a helium filled balloon will go from touching the ceiling to hitting the floor. It is up to the people to make informed decisions and conserve the helium.
“Balloons and Things!” Balloons and Things! Balloons and Things!, n.d. Web. 28 July 2014.
“Conservation Group and Energy Company Reach Agreement on Planned Helium Development in Emery County, Utah.” Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2014.
“The Element Helium.” It’s Elemental. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.
“Helium.” WebElements Periodic Table of the Elements. N.p., n.d. Web. 34 July 2014.
Krule, Miriam, and Noam Prywes. “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Is One Giant Waste of Gas.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 July 2014.
Malik, Jennifer A. “Washington Avoids Helium Shortage.” MRS Bulletin. Cambridge, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 28 July 2014.
Reisch, Marc S. “Coping With The Helium Shortage.” CEN RSS. N.p., 5 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 July 2014.
Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve. Washington, DC: National Academies, 2010. National Academies Press, 2010. Web. 30 July 2014.
Watson, Stephanie. “How Cryonics Work.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks.com, n.d. Web. 28 July 2014.
Witchalls, Clint. “Nobel Prizewinner: We Are Running out of Helium.” New Scientist. New Scientist, 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 24 July 2014.