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Scientists Speak Out Against Wasting Helium In Balloons

timothy posted about a year and a half ago | from the stop-thinking-of-the-children dept.

Earth 589

Hugh Pickens writes "BBC reports that 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 — and since helium cools the large magnets inside MRI scanners it is wrong to use it for balloons used at children's parties. 'We're not going to run out of helium tomorrow — but on the 30 to 50 year timescale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don't do something in the meantime,' says Welton. '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.' Two years ago, the shortage of helium prompted American Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson to speak out about the huge amounts of helium wasted every day because the gas is kept artificially cheap by the U.S. government and to call for a dramatic increase in helium's price. But John Lee, chairman of the UK's Balloon Association, insists that the helium its members put into balloons is not depriving the medical profession of the gas. 'The helium we use is not pure,' says Lee. 'It's recycled from the gas which is used in the medical industry, and mixed with air. We call it balloon gas rather than helium for that reason.'"

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589 comments

I have the answer (5, Funny)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427237)

There is a lot of Helium in the Sun, so go to the Sun and get some and bring it back. Dear Laura: Wowza, you look great!

Re:I have the answer (5, Funny)

reboot246 (623534) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427405)

The sun is pretty bright and hot. We'd have to go there at night.

Re:I have the answer (1)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427421)

You are correct! I appoint you the honorary vice chair of the Campaign for a Free Internet!!!!! Your first assignment is to collect dog poop that careless pet owners have left on my lawn. Iwould do it myself, but my responsibilities as the General Secretary of the CFAFI to CFAFI President-Supreme-Empress-for-Life Laura consume all my time. Thank you!

How to decide the fate of helium (5, Funny)

cellocgw (617879) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427249)

There may be a free-market solution. Let's float a trial balloon and see how everyone reacts.

Re:How to decide the fate of helium (5, Insightful)

kerrbear (163235) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427277)

The solution is to use hydrogen instead! It was good enough for the Hindenburg.

Re:How to decide the fate of helium (4, Funny)

Opportunist (166417) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427517)

And what a lesson about the dangers of smoking it could teach our kids!

Re:How to decide the fate of helium (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427643)

The Hindenburg was designed for helium, and hydrogen was only used because supplies of helium were withheld from the operators for political reasons. If the Hindenburg had been designed with hydrogen in mind instead of inert helium the accident may never have happened.

I'm not going to say using hydrogen in a dirigible is a good idea but hydrogen shouldn't be completely written off as an operational substitute for helium because of one fiasco in the 1930s.

Re:How to decide the fate of helium (5, Insightful)

tgd (2822) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427691)

The Hindenburg was designed for helium, and hydrogen was only used because supplies of helium were withheld from the operators for political reasons. If the Hindenburg had been designed with hydrogen in mind instead of inert helium the accident may never have happened.

I'm not going to say using hydrogen in a dirigible is a good idea but hydrogen shouldn't be completely written off as an operational substitute for helium because of one fiasco in the 1930s.

The Hindenburg, and all the other Zeppelin airships had also done hundreds of trips for years, even with hydrogen.

The incident is burned into the public psyche not because it was particularly horrorific, or because it was some example of bad design held up for criticism -- its notable for one reason only. It was the first case of broad media overhype. It was the great-grand-daddy of all the shit we see on the "news" today.

H! (5, Funny)

opusman (33143) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427253)

Using hydrogen for childrens' party balloons would solve the problem and make things potentially much more exciting!

Re:H! (4, Funny)

Longjmp (632577) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427287)

Especially if you mix hydrogen with oxygen at a ratio of 2:1

Re:H! (5, Funny)

JustOK (667959) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427335)

di-hyrdrous monoxide? Do you know how many people that kills each day?

Re:H! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427519)

di-hyrdrous monoxide? Do you know how many people that kills each day?

We must ban it immediately!

Re:H! (5, Funny)

slashdyke (873156) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427289)

I would agree with that except for the question of how much more helium would be needed as a result of the parties? Balloon pops, bursts into fire, house burns down, people sent to hospital in need of medical attention... I think we need a study to anaylize just how many additional MRIs would be needed as a result, so we can determine if we would be saving helium in the long run. Anyone have a few hundred million to invest in such a worth study?

Re:H! (1)

chronokitsune3233 (2170390) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427299)

(Lights a match near where a balloon is being filled up.)

BOM!

Definitely exciting!

Re:H! (4, Interesting)

Longjmp (632577) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427397)

Sorry to burst a bubble, err, balloon here for you.
Pure hydrogen doesn't go "boom" in normal air. Sure, it will result in nice flames, but normal air doesn't supply enough oxygen for a big boom.

I've tried both, hydrogen and a mix of hydrogen and oxygen as a teen, and now guess which one resulted in a one week detention by my parents.

Re:H! (4, Funny)

mark_reh (2015546) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427467)

You didn't read that post carefully. He didn't say BOOM. He said BOM. I have heard many hydrogen balloons exploding and they all said BOM!

Don't do this. (5, Interesting)

clyde_cadiddlehopper (1052112) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427487)

Long ago, I worked at a commercial lab where tanks of H2, 02, and N2O (nitrous oxide) were used for flame or plasma ion detectors. For fun, we used to launch "Hindenburgs" ... large trash bags filled with hydrogen plus a latex glove filled with the oxydizer and trailed by a fuse of burning paraffin film. The balloon would sail off into the night sky and detonate at a safe altitude and distance downwind. Usually. Our antics abruptly halted when one exploded prematurely just a dozen feet off the ground. The concussion and heat convinced us to give up our fun.

Re:H! (2)

guises (2423402) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427477)

For a while I was thinking that could actually work - if something happened you'd get a little flare up, nothing too dangerous. But...

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/05/04/exploding-hydrogen-balloons-at-armenian-political-rally-injure-many/ [rawstory.com]

apparently it doesn't work out so well if you use a lot of them. I'm not sure there's a good solution for this, might just have to wait for advances in materials. Carbon fiber vacuum balloons could work maybe... Maybe. They'd have to be pretty big though.

Re:H! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427699)

This. And fusing cord for the balloon's string! Sounds fun. I'll be right back...

"Simple" Solution (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427275)

Hurry up and get those fusion plants up and running!

Re:"Simple" Solution (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427387)

"Interesting"? "Insightful"?
I'm touched, but I was joking. We'd never get a significant amount of helium before we boiled all our oceans in waste heat.

Re:"Simple" Solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427667)

Tuvalu wants its coastline back. Get to boiling.

'balloon gas' (5, Interesting)

queazocotal (915608) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427285)

The notion that because gas is only 90% pure, it is useless to the medical profession is rather ridiculous.
Refining this gas back to 99.99% helium is almost trivial, compared to extracting it from sources where the helium content is in parts per million.

Re:'balloon gas' (1)

Ogive17 (691899) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427479)

So why don't they do this instead of selling it to the balloon industry?

Re:'balloon gas' (4, Informative)

Rostin (691447) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427683)

The summary contains a hint. The US government keeps the price of helium artificially low. The article that the link goes to is an interview, in which it is stated,

The rich wells are in the USA, they contain up to 2 % helium within the natural gas. But the United States decided to sell their strategic helium reserve five years ago, driving prices down.

It's entirely possible that the price of purified He is currently so low that re-purifying it isn't cost effective.

Where does it come from? (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427291)

If there isn't a renewing source of helium, why hasn't all of it escaped into space yet? It is small enough to even seep through solid containers, given enough time. If the US has a stockpile of the stuff that it's selling off, how did they acquire it? Can't they do it again?

Re:Where does it come from? (4, Informative)

Rosyna (80334) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427325)

If there isn't a renewing source of helium, why hasn't all of it escaped into space yet?

It's also a byproduct of nuclear reactions/decay.

Re:Where does it come from? (4, Informative)

seven of five (578993) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427327)

The Earth is constantly producing more through radioactive decay deep underground. Alpha particles steal electrons from neighboring atoms and become He. Some of it becomes trapped in oil and natural gas reservoirs making it easy to tap off in quantity. Anybody here know at what rate this happens, like, in liters per year?

Re:Where does it come from? (5, Interesting)

pz (113803) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427339)

The renewal is from radioactive decay in rocks, and the helium nuclei get caught in the small crystal grains in every rock. Extraction requires heating the crushed rock above 90C at which point the helium gets thermally liberated (there's an entire field of geology called thermochronology based on this fact; a good friend of mine has published a handful of Nature papers on the subject). Renewal is extremly slow, so that once we have mined the radiogenic helium, the replacement rate is essentially zero. It can be man-made in nuclear reactors (fusion and fission), but there are practicality issues with both approaches.

So they can buy all the helium if they want it (4, Insightful)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427301)

So these 'academics' then should buy all the helium and preserve it if they are worried, because at this point the price for He is low and the market sets the price.

This Richardson person wants the market to artificially increase the price of He by a factor of 20. Who is this dude that he thinks he can dictate to the world how it must use its resources?

Let me put it this way, if the market decided to blow up the planet, nobody could prevent it, it would just happen. Using He for balloons may just mean that the planet will blow up later on because of more wars, who knows, but it's not up to anybody to dictate to all people how they should live and die.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1)

JustOK (667959) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427341)

... but it's not up to anybody to dictate to all people how they should live and die.

[citation needed]
Actually, all kinds of people have that power.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (3, Insightful)

udachny (2454394) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427511)

(/. comment limitation strikes again, thus my second account)
--

They can try and dictate it, but the market always wins at the end, it's a law of nature, like gravity. You can fight it for a while, but you can't stop it.

Any price manipulations will be met by higher prices but also by black markets, where the price will be set by the market given the conditions it has to operate within.

In case of He production, it just may cease to exist altogether, after all, it's mostly extracted during natural gas mining process, so if the prices are set at a level where nobody buys the gas, then why should anybody produce it? It's ridiculous to believe that a company must collect a worthless resources like that (worthless, because it's unsellable and thus unusable). What, a company would build bigger and bigger, more and more expensive facilities to store Helium for the future use? 50 years into the future? It's not a metal, it's a very light gas, it's very expensive to keep around.

Here, look at the natural gas prices [ycharts.com], set the time line to "Max". The prices are falling even in this manipulated inflationary economy, so this means the supply is plentiful given the consumption level (and it can't be stored and transported easily, like oil can).

The end result of artificial floor at 20 times the current rate (which is what Richardson wants) would be near disappearance of the gas from the market, THEN the prices would go up much higher, not 20 times, maybe 1000 times or more, nobody knows, but here is what this will mean for people: MRI scans will become much more expensive and no more party balloons for kids, all while most of He will be just let out into the space. Congrats.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427353)

because at this point the price for He is low and the market sets the price.

Did you even read the summary? The exact complaint here is that the market does NOT set the price of helium. The government is meddling with the market to make it artificially low. Similar to what they do with various other subsidies.

If the market alone set the price, it would be much higher because it would reflect the actual scarcity of helium.

I know reading the article is too much to ask, but for fuck's sake, the summary is RIGHT THERE on the page.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (3, Informative)

roman_mir (125474) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427459)

It is nonsense that prices are kept artificially low by government, they were kept artificially high by US gov't until 1996, when US gov't decided to stop gov't intervention in He production and storage. Just like most people, who don't understand economics, you and the 'academic' in question are talking about natural gas mining AS IF it is subsidised by gov't, it's not.

In FACT the prices for natural gas fell sharply in USA over the decade. Here is an interactive graph, set the scale to 10 years. [ycharts.com] It's a hard to store and transport commodity, many companies went out of business. There is NO shortage of Helium, that's what the market says. The market in USA also says that there is (right now) no shortage of natural gas.

Here, I'll make it easier for you (I don't know if you can understand the easier version either, but hey, I'll try).

Helium is almost fully extracted from natural gas, which is mined for its other uses (like fuel production), and so if He is not collected from natural gas production, there won't be almost ANY supply of He available at any price.

So by creating an artificial price floor for He all you are going to accomplish is this: the consumption will be much lower and production will mostly cease to exist, which means Helium is going to be RELEASED INTO THE ATMOSPHERE and that's it, it's gone. The entire process of He extraction may be scrapped and there will be no way of getting any of it. So your MRI costs will go up, enjoy.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (5, Insightful)

udachny (2454394) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427609)

The ignorant comment that the AC made is moderated to +2 Insightful by people who also don't understand economics and don't know that US gov't was keeping prices for He artificially high for decades by buying up He from natural gas producers.

The reason people could even start using He in balloons or whatever is because finaly in 1996 US gov't stopped artificially inflating (no pun intended) prices on Helium, because it stopped buying it from natural gas companies and even put it up for sale on the market.

The market brought prices down to where they should be, which again, is an example of how normal market works vs gov't.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427409)

I'm getting tired of people saying "the market will fix it". The market fixes nothing. It's a broken ecosystem. It works by positive feedbacks and constantly overshoots, which means periods of apparent prosperity followed by misery. The market needs regulation because it lacks other forms of negative feedback loops which are essential to make it a healthy system. The end result of letting the market decide can only be, shortages, very dire shortages, of any substance whose availability we mean to regulate through it. I say, if something is essential, DON'T leave it to the market.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427451)

You are so utterly wrong, it's tragic. The boom and bust cycle is a symptom of central banking, which is the single greatest interference in the market that our government inflicts on us. Regulation, specifically the regulation that requires us to accept fiat money which the government inflates at will, is the very thing that has caused our current economic morass.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427455)

Once again we see it demonstrated that the most apt definition of a "scientist" is "political activist that also wants to take credit for advances actually developed by engineers, entrepreneurs and lay inventors".

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427497)

So these 'academics' then should buy all the helium and preserve it if they are worried,

Academics won't have a problem sourcing enough helium. It's medicine which needs the amounts in its MRI scanners. This is an example of "altriusm", something stupid libertarians don't understand.

because at this point the price for He is low and the market sets the price.

There is nothing like a free market in helium. Knowing this would have required a quick amount of research, something stupid libertarians don't do.

This Richardson person wants the market to artificially increase the price of He by a factor of 20.

No, he wants regulation to protect the supply of helium. The market doesn't "artificially" do anything - it's a contradiction in terms, something stupid libertarians wouldn't understand.

Who is this dude that he thinks he can dictate to the world how it must use its resources?

He has no authority on his own, but has as much right as anyone to petition the government, something a stupid libertarians would never do - unless it might make them more wealthy.

Let me put it this way, if the market decided to blow up the planet, nobody could prevent it, it would just happen. Using He for balloons may just mean that the planet will blow up later on because of more wars, who knows,

You, Sir, are definitely an Internet kook.

but it's not up to anybody to dictate to all people how they should live and die.

Thank goodness! There was me thinking that you were dictating to the world.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (2)

BasilBrush (643681) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427505)

Let me put it this way, if the market decided to blow up the planet, nobody could prevent it, it would just happen.

Strangest argument for market forces I've ever heard.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1)

udachny (2454394) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427541)

My argument (second account, /. limits my comments on the first account) is that market forces are unstoppable, they are forces of nature, no amount of regulations can prevent the inevitable. But regulations can delay the inevitable and change it into something worse.

---

My actual arguments about He are [slashdot.org] here [slashdot.org].

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427595)

My argument (second account, /. limits my comments on the first account)

Please take the hint.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (3, Insightful)

BasilBrush (643681) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427601)

The posting limit is there for a reason. It's Sunday: spend some time with the family, go out of the house and do something different. Maybe the quality of your arguments would be improved by some time away and a bit more selectivity.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (5, Funny)

Enter the Shoggoth (1362079) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427705)

...market forces are unstoppable, they are forces of nature...

Gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic... nope no market in there... citation required.

Re:So they can buy all the helium if they want it (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427761)

market forces are unstoppable, they are forces of nature, no amount of regulations can prevent the inevitable

My argument is that you are an Internet kook, ostensibly having had a bad childhood experience in the East and believing that the solution is an absolute diametric opposite. In this respect I have little more than pity for you.

And, FWIW, I am a mathematics graduate, I initially went into investment banking, and I can assure you that the "free market" is little more than taking advantage of information asymmetry and other forms of hoodwinking. I'm now a teacher (with an unusual amount of capital).

I use it carefully at my place because.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427313)

it makes me and my friends feel.. CoORrkyyYYYYY!

Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427337)

This is just a small item, but it goes to a bigger theme, as a 26 year old, I have been told that I cant have a nice life style because its bad for earth or a waste of resources or bad for your health.

Because of cow pies, we are supposed to eat less red meat, or ideally none at al!
because of global warming (which I do think is real), Im supposed to drive a tiny little car that has a hard time going over 60 MPH
Because of health concerns, I shouldn't salt my food to taste, or eat sugary treats,
Because of speculation in the market and salarys not going up with inflation, the nice home that cost my parents the equivalent of about 2 years post tax post med insurance take home pay will now cost me 4 years of the same.

And now I cant even get my kid a ballon for their birthday? What the fuck is this? Its almost like the west is becoming the new third world. I just want a decent life like my parents and their parents had. The sickest part is the people telling us we shouldn't have the good life use exotic luxuries private jets and limos. Its an outrage!
 

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (1)

der_pinchy (1053896) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427381)

fuck helium balloons. When I was a kid we didnt have that for birthdays. We had to knaw the bark off of trees till our teeth fell out and we LIKED IT!

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427413)

This is just a small item, but it goes to a bigger theme, as a 26 year old, I have been told that I cant have a nice life style because its bad for earth or a waste of resources or bad for your health.

Because of cow pies, we are supposed to eat less red meat, or ideally none at al! because of global warming (which I do think is real), Im supposed to drive a tiny little car that has a hard time going over 60 MPH Because of health concerns, I shouldn't salt my food to taste, or eat sugary treats, Because of speculation in the market and salarys not going up with inflation, the nice home that cost my parents the equivalent of about 2 years post tax post med insurance take home pay will now cost me 4 years of the same.

And now I cant even get my kid a ballon for their birthday? What the fuck is this? Its almost like the west is becoming the new third world. I just want a decent life like my parents and their parents had. The sickest part is the people telling us we shouldn't have the good life use exotic luxuries private jets and limos. Its an outrage!

Globalism has never been about spreading prosperity. It has always been about a race to the bottom.

Taking the USA down a peg or two (or three) and making it the next third-world nation is precisely what our ruling elite wants to do. A prosperous middle class is hard to rule. They don't need government as much as government wants to be needed. So you destroy the middle class. Best way to do that is make them compete directly with someone who can survive on 1/10th the wage. Sound familiar? While you're at it, you play games with abstract fiat currency until you devaule it, the purpose of inflation being to destroy the savings of those who would have been upwardly mobile. The truly wealthy have hard assets that scale in value with inflation.

The major difference between a first-world nation and a third-world nation is that everybody is in poverty in a third-world nation. Except of course the ruling elite.

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427423)

Stop being a cry baby, it will take me the equivalent of 30 years to pay back a 2 bedroom, 70 square meters apartment in my country, no, its not a 3rd world country, but the government do try to make us one by raising taxes above 70% (direct and indirect).

So most of us can't really afford buying an apt, which makes rent even crazier because there's a shortage.

Can you guess where I live?

Israel.

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427673)

Don't worry the arabs (palestinian/Israeli or externals) will change it to a 3rd world country, just give them a few generations.

The reason why Mubarak fell was the population increased beyond the capacity for the state to give them freebies (subsidized wheat)- the other reason was the wheat price went up (allegedly due to speculation). Even without the price increase, given exponential population growth without an exponential increase in productivity there's no way for them to be fed as cheaply as they were accustomed to. And from what I see the Egyptian youth sure weren't very productive in terms of growing food or doing other useful stuff.

On the macro scale when the world's population increases beyond the point that we can get enough of the stuff we want, the rich will still have their luxuries, the poor will be screwed.

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427435)

Meanwhile, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, health care is better than ever, you've got the internet and awesome kick-ass games. Back in the day, read meat and salt was just as bad for you, people just didn't know about it, and you are free to eat as much of it as you want. Yeah, things sure do suck today.

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427443)

And now I cant even get my kid a ballon for their birthday? What the fuck is this? Its almost like the west is becoming the new third world.

Think for a moment what it would feel like to see your child starving and emaciated, or conscripted into some warlord's army and then re-read what you just wrote.

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427515)

Helium doesn't stop getting scarce just because you don't want it to, you know, and you can fill balloons with air too: just stick the opening in your mouth and blow air into them. What I discovered as a kid was that when I rubbed a balloon against my woolen sweater it would be charged with static electricity, and when I threw it up against the ceiling it would stick there for hours or even days. Who needs helium to have fun with balloons?

Re:Life is supposed to get Better, not worse! (4, Insightful)

cyborg_zx (893396) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427719)

Waaah!!!! First world problems suck!!!! Fuck starving people; where's my helium balloons?

Hilarious.

Solution? Use Hydrogen instead. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427343)

It's much more plentiful than Helium and it's even more fun for the kids.

Oh no (1)

sonamchauhan (587356) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427351)

My plans for selling billions of small helium-filled personal orbs is at risk. :)

Like the 'Keno' from the late unlamented 'Stargate Universe', they would follow their owners around at shoulder height, interacting with sound, marquee messages on the orb's surface and changing orb color. The electronics, cameras and micro propellors etc. would be powered by a small induction-charged battery topped up by floating 'visits' to a fixed charging station.

The actual solution... (5, Interesting)

cirby (2599) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427357)

Build more helium extraction plants in natural gas refineries.

Really.

The reason helium was (relatively) cheap was that the US built a nice large extraction plant at a natural gas field with a very high concentration of helium. That field is starting to run out, so prices are naturally going up.

Helium is not, however, limited to that one field. There are many other natural gas fields with varying concentrations of helium, and all you need to do is add a cryogenic helium extraction plant to a natural gas refinery to pull that helium out of the existing gas feeds. This is already happening in a few places, and with current technology, it's not that expensive to build more plants. It's only cost effective in a field with higher concentrations of helium - but there are quite a few of those.

The United States has proven helium reserves of about fifty years... and unproven reserves of about a thousand times that. ("Proven" means "we know it's there," and "unproven" means "we're pretty sure it's there, but haven't gotten around to it yet for economic or legal reasons").

Re:The actual solution... (4, Informative)

imsabbel (611519) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427757)

Actually, not quite.

The reason helium is cheap is becaue the US had a HUUUUUGE strategic stockpile during the cold war (many times the total yearly helium production, IIRC), that is being sold off, massivly pushing down the price.

And it is not that easy with the reseves. Helium shortages are a reality! I have colleques that could not fill their helium cryostats because Air Liquide told them that currently they cannot deliver, as hospitals got first priority and the supply was to thin for weeks. They ended up renting a truck to carry dewars from the other end of the country!

Hydrogen mixture for ballons? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427373)

Maybe a mixture of "many parts" hydrogen, "a few parts" helium, and "a very few parts" nitrogen (or something along this lines) would address this problem while at the same time preventing party balloons from doubling as IED's.

I bet the gasses would separate while in the balloon. This method would probably not be a solution.

Laudable view, but ... (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427375)

As a medical doctor working outside of the US I am appalled at the amount of over-investigation that goes in within the US medical profession. There are probably thousands of unnecessary MRI scans undertaken every month in the US. Perhaps with the scarcity of a required gas, this might bring rates of MRI scans back in line with normal.

Re:Laudable view, but ... (4, Interesting)

cirby (2599) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427473)

Increasing the number of scans per machine doesn't increase the usage of helium by any great amount - the major consumption of the gas is from ongoing leakage.

Once you have enough MRI machines in a given market, consumption is fairly stable.

On the other hand, once you have a saturated market in MRI hardware, the price of scans drops dramatically, which is why doctors here "overuse" the machines. That's also why you can get a walk-in appointment to get a full-body MRI for a few hundred bucks in much of the US, while it's a several-month wait list in most of the world (if it's available at all).

At one point, there were more MRI clinics in Orlando, Florida than there were in the entire United Kingdom - and quite a bit of the Orlando market was from people flying there from the UK and Canada to get immediate scans.

Re:Laudable view, but ... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427555)

I am appalled that you think that increasing the cost of medical care in the U.S. would be in any way beneficial.

The medical establishment in the U.S. does not overuse testing technologies because they are cheap. They do it because the patient's health insurance and the physician's malpractice insurance almost completely divorces the true cost of the procedure from the benefit to the patient's health.

Thus, if you increase the cost of the MRI, health insurance premiums rise, and perhaps some arbitrary group of people who might actually benefit from cheap MRI scans become completely unable to use one. The usage does not actually change much.

The physicians working in the U.S. are, for the most part, smart folks that are influenced to implement questionable practices because idiots with money and/or power punish them for practicing medicine in a manner that would otherwise be considered prudent, efficient, and effective.

Re:Laudable view, but ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427567)

MRI scans needed or not aren't a problem other than a debatable waste of resources. Unnecessary CT scans on the other hand are a proven public health hazard.

So, no. Doing less MRI scans is not good for whom may need them and is not bad for those that didn't need them.

Re:Laudable view, but ... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427619)

...yea cause only 10's of thousands of lives have been saved by "unnecessary" MRI's that caught cancer early. What kind of doctor is appalled by the overuse of technology that results in a net saving of lives and an overall reduction in the cost of the technology by increasing the availability?

Yes, let the price rise (4, Interesting)

Dr. Spork (142693) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427383)

I have a feeling that as soon as helium got expensive, we'd suddenly have all kinds of good ideas about how to recycle it more effectively. I mean, it's a noble gas, it's not like it gets "used up" in any medical or industrial application! I know it can escape through even the smallest cracks, but it doesn't seem so hard to build some kind of secondary containment around medical imaging machines. Separating helium from air is trivially easy with a gas centrifuge. This could probably be done on site.

Re:Yes, let the price rise (1)

imsabbel (611519) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427763)

Actually, Helium recory is a reality. Most of it IS recovered, otherwise we would have total chaos.

Turn the issue around! (3, Insightful)

XB-70 (812342) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427399)

Let's make this a learning experience for kids: rather than use helium, sell (or make) home hydrogen production kits.

Making a little hydrogen at home (enough for a few balloons) solves the problem of having tanks of potentially explosive gas around.

Also, if hydrogen catches fire, it burns UP, not down. It can also make a fun way to end the party: light the balloons with the birthday candles!!

Tell my kids that, Tom! (4, Funny)

adosch (1397357) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427411)

Balloons are every kid's enjoyment for birthdays, special event or talking like an oompa-loompa, fun-hater Tom Welton. Good luck explaining that Hellium is essential to MRI equipment because it's low boiling point and keep magnets cool to kids who just want a Mylar balloon that says "Happy Birthday".

I think we need to reevaluate what's wrong and focus research towards re-engineering MRI machines or use different mediums to cool these differently. I've seen this in the news for almost the last decade and if it's such a dilemma. What's that famous Albert Einsetin quote? "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Re:Tell my kids that, Tom! (2, Insightful)

chichilalescu (1647065) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427537)

kids will have fun whenever the adults give them the attention they deserve. including when they will be forced to play with balloons filled with regular air.
please think before you teach your kids to be wasteful.

Re:Tell my kids that, Tom! (2, Insightful)

Chysn (898420) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427657)

We should redesign medical equipment and phase out existing medical equipment because we don't want to explain the lack of helium balloons to children? I think your priorities are a little out of whack.

How about we use the helium for the MRIs, and teach children not to expect floating balloons. Balloon animals are a good alternative, if balloons need to be involved at all. I've got four young kids, and they're pretty easy to please.

Communism! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427419)

The idea that MRI machines are somehow entitled to the entire helium supply is completely asinine.
If MRI users want helium, they can buy it on the common market at the going price. Otherwise, fuck 'em.
Or better yet, they could research alternatives, such argon-cooled MRI machines. It's possible. They just don't do it... because they suck.

Re:Communism! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427641)

The market solution to a subsidy is to buy up all the subsidized supply and then either consume from the stockpile or re-sell it at a higher price.

Thus the solution is to build your own helium storage facility. Unfortunately, due to the prevailing political climate, it is more likely that the interested parties will instead plow that money and effort into lobbying congresses, assemblies, and parliaments to produce a solution that ruins helium for everyone.

Moon (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427429)

Why don't we just harvest it on the moon? If we hurry up with cloning technology, we don't even need regular people to supervise the mining process.

Hydrogen (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427453)

Hydrogen is a valid substitute to helium in many recreational uses. Just keep it outdoors and away from dirigibles. When I see lighter than air balloons filled with helium I always think of hydrogen. Besides, hydrogen is lighter making it superior for intended use anyway.

hmm (1)

buddyglass (925859) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427465)

If Helium is scarce and there are actual shortages, shouldn't the price rise to correspondingly high levels? High enough, perhaps, to make it not economically feasible for use in kids' balloons?

Summary: (4, Insightful)

folderol (1965326) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427469)

Scientists with long-term humanitarian concerns have independently suggested there may be a problem. Commercially supported organisation with short-term financial interests says there isn't.

Use Nitrous Oxide for party balloons instead (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427471)

Of course, the balloons do not float like Helium balloons. But if you pop a few of the balloons in a closed room, nobody gives a damn anyway . . .

It's a common theme it seems (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427501)

Helium is too precious for the commoners. Lets make it too expensive for them.

Commoners produce too much carbon, lets make that expensive for them.

Commoners require too much heat. Lets make that expensive for them.

commoners enjoy traveling way too much, lets make that more expensive for them.

Those commoners .. they like to eat too much. Lets make that less enjoyable and make it much more expensive for them.

I have a solution. Lets start to tar and feather these asshats who propose making things more expensive.

Re:It's a common theme it seems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427651)

Because it's not like anything could possibly be scarce.

Once a resource is abundant, it is always abundant!

You're complaining about wealth disparity, by the way, not resource allotment. You would be happier if everyone else had these restrictions. Of course, fixing that issue is gonna look a lot like socialism...too bad you can't see the forest for the trees.

Pricing (2)

pubwvj (1045960) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427503)

This is all about pricing. If it is really a shortage then the price goes up and people waste less. The free market really does work - as long as government's are messing with it by subsidizing things. Eliminate the low cost availability of helium from the US government, and probably others, and then the price will float up to it's natural higher level. Demand will drop as will consumption.

Nonrenewable (1)

puddingebola (2036796) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427527)

Helium is the worlds nonrenewable resource. I don't think kids are going to give a shit if there aren't balloons at their parties.

This argument... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427563)

...is like a lot of hot air.

Balloon gas is recycled from medical uses (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427571)

At the bottom of the BBC article, it is stated that the gas used in balloons (which is not pure helium) is waste gas from medical and other uses.

I've heard this before and wondered... (1)

sootman (158191) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427697)

... if it's so valuable and scarce, why is it so cheap? You would think that this is the kind of thing that really would get itself sorted out by the market, and I don't think there's "big helium" or government subsidies happening behind the scenes to mess things up.

Re:I've heard this before and wondered... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year and a half ago | (#41427765)

Yes there is. And it's explained right there in the summary.

Is coercion really the answer? (1)

Tony Isaac (1301187) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427759)

Professor Welton says that because there is a shortage, we should (essentially) make rules against using Helium for "trivial" purposes like party balloons. This seems rather draconian to me. Is helium really the only way to cool MRI machines? I'll bet that, if prices rise enough, somebody will invent a new method not involving helium. Should partiers give up helium balloons? I'll be that, if prices rise enough, they will stop using them without being coerced.

We will also have a shortage of gasoline (3, Insightful)

Underholdning (758194) | about a year and a half ago | (#41427771)

"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". Well, it's a good thing we're not burning fossil fuel by letting cars run around in a circular track, round and round, just for the heck of it.
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