There's a bleak, darkly funny story in the Guardian today about the impending depletion of the world's primary store of helium gas: It turns out that we've squandered what was once a massive stockpile of helium—which is crucial in a wide range of scientific and medical research—on party balloons.
That's right, party balloons. The kind that hover near supermarket checkout aisles. The kind that you may have bought once or twice for a child's birthday party. The kind that inevitably deflates into a sad rumpled blob in the corner of your kitchen or prematurely ascends to the heavens when accidentally released in some parking lot.
Here's the Guardian:
Oleg Kirichek, the leader of a research team at the Isis neutron beam facility at the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, had an unpleasant shock last week. One of his key experiments, designed to probe the structure of matter, had to be cancelled – because the facility had run out of helium.Which is deeply ironic, and would be hilarious if it weren't so depressing.
The gas, used to cool atoms to around -270C to reduce their vibrations and make them easier to study, is now becoming worryingly scarce, said Kirichek. Research facilities probing the structure of matter, medical scanners and other advanced devices that use the gas may soon have to reduce operations or close because we are frittering away the world's limited supplies of helium on party balloons.
See, it turns out that the U.S. started storing helium, which is released as a byproduct of petrochemical extraction, many decades ago—back when we thought we'd use the stuff to power airships. When we realized that a fleet of war zeppelins probably wasn't in the cards (which took us until 1990 or so) we started selling it off like hot cakes. The price of helium plunged, and cheap party balloons proliferated. Lloyd noted in a previous post that the government capped the price in 1996, and that its supply will vanish in under 25 years. More helium can of course be extracted, but it seems that we lack the infrastructure to store and distribute the stuff in the quantities needed.
And these helium party balloons surely rank among the most frivolous products in existence. The prospect of labs around the world disbanding crucial medical and scientific research to make room for crinkly novelty items is stunning in its absurdity. It is a powerful reflection of how reckless the marketplace can be.
Who knows what will happen next? Researchers—who say that given the current supply, each balloon should cost around $150 instead of $1.50 or so—may begin to lobby for preserving the remaining helium stores. And the novelty party balloon industry will inevitably lobby back. Perhaps a petition will circulate on the internet. Perhaps there will be protests. One researcher told the Guardian: "I will not be happy if I cannot have a medical scan in my 70s, because we wasted helium on party balloons while I was in my 30s."
And all the while, consumers will continue buying party balloons in grocery store checkout aisles and kids will be inhaling their contents to make their voices sound funny.