Last night I attended the wedding of my fiancé’s cousin and, although it looked lovely, I was a bit shocked by the number of balloons which were used as decoration, due to the ever-worsening helium shortage happening in the world right now.
Helium may be the second most abundant element in the universe but, due to how light it is, it easily leaves our atmosphere and escapes into space. Furthermore, the primary route of collecting helium is as via extraction from natural gas reserves. Therefore, Helium is a finite resource on Earth.
The US government has been selling off helium at low rates since 1996, and this has led to this precious resource not being collected and stored as efficiently as it should have been. An article in The Independent states that the entire US stock supply of helium will be sold off by 2015, leading to huge question marks hanging over the future of many research projects and technologies.
The cheap price of helium has led to a tremendous waste of the gas in party balloons, when it could serve a much better use in MRI and NMR machines. As a chemist, I know how valuable NMR machines are to research, and my PhD would virtually come to a standstill if I couldn’t take advantage of this vital characterisation technique.
The helium shortage was brought to my attention even more so this week by the attempted journey across the Atlantic by Jonathon Trappe in a lifeboat suspended by 370 giant cluster balloons. The Royal Society of Chemistry posted an article online in July condemning this trip, due to the massive waste of this precious resource. Although a journey across the Atlantic using balloons would be an amazing feat, would it really be worth it when we could be using this helium for medical applications, such as combining it with oxygen to help support new babies with breathing? The answer, in my opinion, is no, and the matter was made even more aggravating to the scientific community by the abandonment of the flight on Friday due to technical difficulties.
A concern of mine is that too few members of the public are aware of this worrying shortage, and continue to waste it on balloons for parties, weddings and anniversaries. Everywhere I go, I see helium escaping into the atmosphere, never to be recovered and used again. There needs to be more education in place so that people both understand what a possible crisis this shortage could become, and appreciate the many important uses of helium which we need to conserve it for.