Up and away

Nov. 1, 2009
One of the sweetest movies of 2009 features the delights of helium. Up the animated film in 3D where available is the story of a retired man that travels

One of the sweetest movies of 2009 features the delights of helium. Up — the animated film in 3D where available — is the story of a retired man that travels to South America in his house, lifted by thousands of helium-filled balloons. By all means, see it: You'll adore the film if you haven't already. Part of the Up story is that the old guy slowly loses his balloons — a theme both symbolically beautiful and true to literal reality: In no uncertain terms, helium is a nonrenewable resource, and we're running out of it.

Mind you, helium is the second-most abundant element in the Universe. There's tons of it in the atmosphere of Neptune, for example — but on Earth, helium is only found with natural gas — a byproduct of reactions over eons. The dwindling of earthbound helium gets intermittent media coverage, with the last news blitz three years ago, when markets were seeing organizational changes. However, not even in recent coverage of the runaway Heene balloon from Colorado did any news outlets mention the worth of its precious helium. The lack of information on the topic made me wonder: Was this a case of market fixing?

So, off the record, I spoke with a sales associate from Praxair Inc., an international supplier of industrial gases. In fact, the helium shortage is no joke. It's a real and growing problem right now — and will continue to be an issue in the future. Engineers are increasingly leveraging the incredible usefulness of helium — and use is rising for all kinds of applications in welding, pressurizing, and flat-panel display and semiconductor manufacture. According to my source, Praxair has instituted a kind of rationing to give purchasing preference to those in medical fields, for one of helium's most well-known applications: You see, helium can get colder than any other material we have on Earth — so it's used in its ultra-cold liquid form (at -450° F) in MRIs as a refrigerant, to cool superconducting magnet wires until their resistance is negligible.

Drilling does uncover pockets of helium here and there; one new source was recently discovered in Algeria. Even so, this won't meet demand, especially on the industrial side … and helium prices will continue rising (like so many balloons) for the foreseeable future.

It makes me wonder about the time I brought a helium tank to work, to decorate the office for a coworker's birthday. Gleefully, I filled balloon after balloon from the 40-plus-pound steel vessel of noble gas, solely for purposes of merriment. In fact, the tank was borrowed from my mother, who still keeps it for any events that may necessitate hovering party favors.

Will we someday think back on our enjoyment of helium balloons with shame? Will we peer at photographs featuring floating orbs with scorn, shake our heads at the reckless abandon with which we dispatched this inert gas? Some helium suppliers are already shedding balloon customers, partly because they pay less for the commodity. Now, I feel that most nonrenewable resources should be conserved. But for helium, I say: Float ‘em if you got ‘em.

About the Author

Elisabeth Eitel

Elisabeth Eitel was a Senior Editor at Machine Design magazine until 2014. She has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Fenn College at Cleveland State University.

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