Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

Community News Network

November 22, 2012

Slate: Macy's parade contributes to loss of helium supplies

For Americans, the third Thursday in November can mean lots of things, usually some combination of food, family, and football. But before all that, there's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The three-hour, 80-plus-year tradition starts at 9 a.m. and boasts 16 gigantic balloons. If you are ambitious and want to brave the cold on the night before, you can watch those balloons get inflated. In addition to seeing Kermit the Frog or Spider-Man, you'll also witness the squandering of the global supply of helium.

At projected rates of consumption, all the currently available helium on Earth will be depleted in about 40 years. While its best-known use may be filling balloons and making people who inhale it squeak like Mickey Mouse, the element's scientific uses are arguably more valuable. 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. So, while a world with no more balloons is a sad specter, without liquefied helium we wouldn't be able to make superconducting magnets like those in MRIs.

The sorry state of our helium reserves can be traced to three key factors. Thanks to a 1996 act of Congress, the price of helium is artificially low, so there's little deterrence for overuse. There's also the fact that we have no idea how to artificially produce helium in any real, sustainable way. Finally, helium's unique properties make finding a viable substitute almost impossible.

The helium we use today is found in underground gas pockets, often associated with natural gas. Helium is abundant in the universe, but here on Earth it is more elusive; while there's a lot of helium in the atmosphere, it is very difficult to purify. It's really only when it is trapped underground that we can isolate it. This helium is largely formed as a by-product of decaying radioactive elements. The rate at which it is produced accounts for less than one-half of global demand, and most of it cannot be recovered efficiently.

Text Only
Community News Network
Business Marquee

e-Edition
  • How You Want It When You Want It Today's Pauls Valley Democrat

    Now you can view and download the Democrat right to your desktop on the day the paper is published. Click here to get more information on the Democrat's e-Edition.

     

    CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE E-EDITION SITE

     

    ATTENTION CURRENT DEMOCRAT SUBSCRIBERS TO START an e-EDITION

    e-mail request to sjohnson@pvdemocrat.com

    April 20, 2011 1 Photo 1 Link

AP Video
Disabled Veterans Memorial Nearing Completion Last Mass Lynching in U.S. Remains Unsolved Home-sharing Programs Help Seniors Ex-NYC Mayor: US Should Allow Flights to Israel Clinton: "AIDS-Free Generation Within Our Reach" Judge Ponders Overturning Colo. Gay Marriage Ban Airlines Halt Travel to Israel Amid Violence NYPD Chief Calls for 'use of Force' Retraining VA Nominee McDonald Goes Before Congress Bush: Don't Worry, Sugarland Isn't Breaking Up US Official: Most Migrant Children to Be Removed Police Probing Brooklyn Bridge Flag Switch CDC Head Concerned About a Post-antibiotic Era Raw: First Lady Says `Drink Up' More Water Courts Conflicted Over Healthcare Law Holder Urges Bipartisanship on Immigration Raw: Truck, Train Crash Leads to Fireball US Airlines Cancel Israel Flights Obama Signs Workforce Training Law Crash Victims' Remains Reach Ukraine-held City
Stocks
Facebook