The Unbearable Lightness of Helium

We are letting go of all our helium. This is no joke. As we satisfy our mylar bellies’ hunger for maximum buoyancy, helium escapes from our planet at a rate much faster than the Earth can replenish it, and the US, holding 75% of the world’s supply, happens to be selling it off at bargain-basement prices []. We’re set to fully run out of helium around the year 2035.

But some of my favorite comedians — the ones with more than trace elements of intelligence — love to make light of it.

Last night, The Daily Show ran a special report on the looming helium gas-hole. But Brian Malow (the Science Comedian . . . “dot com!”) beat both The Daily Mail and The Daily Show to the punchline back in 2009, in this nerdtastic Ignite talk at the Web 2.0 Expo in SF []:

Helium is a nonrenewable, finite resource, yet it’s a crucial and insubstitutable element in technologies where its uniquely low boiling point is necessary for cooling, such as in MRI scanners and in the manufacture of liquid crystal displays. Why are we so frivolously letting go of helium?

Well, basically, because we can… and because people are unaware that we shouldn’t be able to. Prices have been driven up, scarcity can definitely be felt, but public understanding of the fact that helium, once consumed, can never be retrieved and won’t be replaced, is not exactly at the forefront of environmental education.

“We have to be thinking of these things,” said Lee Sobotka, a chemistry and physics professor at Washington University. “Up to now, the issue often hasn’t risen to the level that it’s important. It’s a problem for the next generation of scientists. But it’s incumbent upon us to have a vision, and tell it like it is a resource that is more strictly nonrenewable than either oil or gas.”

This is not to say that guilt would stimulate conservation. As this party balloon seller remarked in 2008 [], following a huge price surge in helium gas,

“Sometimes customers are a little surprised by the price, but it doesn’t prevent them from wanting a fun arrangement,” he said. “It’s sort of like price increases with things like gasoline or bread, or milk. People don’t stop buying them.”

For the consumer, helium was already an occasional luxury. Now it’s simply a more expensive occasional luxury. It will likely take prices even the rich consider ludicrous to deter consumer-market depletion of helium, which is not likely to happen without tight regulation of the supply.

Et Tu, Boyfriend?

Testing the theory that girls love a bad boy, my partner Josh fritters away our dwindling helium reserves by sending weather balloons up to near-space to take pictures and send back GPS and other sensory data via ham radio. He filed this post on his blog about the third in a series of missions dubbed “Bacchus” under thank god my girlfriend thinks this is sexy. Hmm.

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