Is the balloon about to go bust over a helium shortage?

Helium is used as a coolant for the large magnets inside MRI scanners – the important devices that provide detailed internal images for medical diagnoses. Helium is a rare, noble gas. But helium is also used in balloons. Will we run out of helium because we carelessly use it for a frivolous purpose?

BBC News – Helium shortage prompts scientist’s balloon use warning.

[…]for many people, a vital element in arranging a party is sitting down with a cylinder of helium to fill dozens of balloons with the lighter-than-air gas.

But according to one academic, such occasions may soon be a thing of the past.

Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College, London, believes that a global shortage of helium means it should be used more carefully.

“When you see that we’re literally just letting it float into the air, and then out into space inside those helium balloons, it’s just hugely frustrating. It is absolutely the wrong use of helium.”

Source: BBC

According to the British Compressed Gas Association, there is a shortage. And the balloon merchants say the cost is high.

But wait, there may be more to this story…

Forbes has this:

The thing is there’s a confusion here between the current extraction infrastructure and the total amount of the element available to us.

It is absolutely true that prices are currently tight. That parts of the current production system are closed down and thus supplies are lower than usual. However, this is not the same as stating that we’re actually running out of the stuff.

The helium used in medical application needs to be pure. The stuff put into balloons is recycled from these medical applications according to the BBC piece above. Since helium is also derived from natural gas extraction, and that is INCREASING in the U.S., this might also be a source for the rare gas.

Let’s not burst the balloons just yet.

  1 comment for “Is the balloon about to go bust over a helium shortage?

  1. Chris Hunt
    October 2, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    Hmmm… so a Professor of Sustainable Chemistry at one of Britain’s most reputable universities says we’re running out, but a magazine says we aren’t.

    That’s alright then.

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