Helium balloons may add a certain festive touch to parties—but a British scientist claims that the decorations could potentially set off a world helium shortage. That's considerably less fun.
Helium has a wide range of scientific applications, including slowing down atoms, running super-cool refrigerators and conducting MRI scans. It's often mixed with oxygen in hospitals to make it easier for extremely sick patients and new-borns to breathe, says the Telegraph—among many other crucial applications.
However, world helium stocks are finite, and already some scientists have been forced to cancel experiments due to the shortage, reports the Guardian. A Thanksgiving Day parade in Houston, Texas was forced to scramble to find affordable helium so the show could go on, and it's likely such traumatic scenes will become more common in the future.
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The reason? We use too much helium in party balloons, claims Cambridge scientist Dr Peter Wothers, who will take up the subject at a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, a beloved English holiday tradition.
"The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue. I can imagine that in 50 years time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons," he told the Telegraph.
How does one get helium? It's a byproduct of the petrochemical industry, released when helium pockets are penetrated during oil or gas drilling. It's then cyrogenically distilled to make the stuff you might put in a balloon, says HowStuffWorks.com.
The USA stockpiled a prodigious amount of helium after the creation of the lucrative Federal Helium Reserve, says the Washington Post, which provides a whopping 1/3 of the world's supplies, and was originally established in 1925 for the benefit of the then-promising airship industry.
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This helium only hit the market after a 1996 law forced the government to offload its stocks (the airships never did materialize)—creating the false impression that helium was cheap—and a corresponding uptick in party balloons.
Now Congress and US business interests are becoming worried that the helium party is over—and that the Federal Helium Reserve could run out of operating money as early as 2013. Although other world reserves probably exist, it hasn't been a priority until now to develop them, meaning numerous industries could feel the pitch.
Bottom line? Keep all this doom and gloom in mind as you're scoping out sparkly reindeer-themed holiday balloons for the office party: you might be helping to doom the US economy if you contribute to the world helium shortage. That's less than festive.