Ban the helium balloon!

11 December 2012

Kids today just don’t know they’re born. With Christmas lists full of electronic gadgets and expensive computer games, they will never know the joy of opening an advent calendar just to see which very small picture you got today. And the same goes with balloons- blown up balloons used to be the icing on the cake, now it’s helium or nothing. People even stand around in shopping centres and outside theatres hoping to sell you a helium balloon for several British pounds, which the little gits then forget to hold on to, and they float away into oblivion.

But that seems to be exactly where helium-filled balloons are heading, according to Dr Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a University of Cambridge chemist, who warns that we are wasting a precious resource to inflate gaudy foil shapes. And it’s not all a load of hot air.

Helium is actually a non-renewable gas – it has to be mined from inside the Earth’s crust and cannot be synthesised to make more. In 30-50 years time we might actually run out of it, meaning no more amusing squeaky voices at parties.

But so what? If we want to fritter our helium resource away on balloons so our great grandchildren don’t get to see balloons that float, so what? Well, the things is, Helium has a number of other uses in medicine. It is used to cool magnets in MRI scanners in hospitals, it is mixed with oxygen to make breathing easier for ill patients and can help save new-born babies’ lives.  Future generations can probably live without balloons, but will do less well without crucial medical help.

Dr Wothers plans to bring this to the world stage at the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures later this month. “The scarcity of helium is a really serious issue. I can imagine that in 50 years time our children will be saying ‘I can’t believe they used such a precious material to fill balloons’,”  he said, sadly.

So from now on, helium balloon sellers are public enemy number one, and you are perfectly within your rights to loudly denounce such people anytime your little darlings want a bloated £10 Winnie-the-Pooh. And don’t get us started on that selfish old goat from Up…


The Royal Institution’s 2012 Christmas Lectures can be seen on BBC Four on 26, 27 and 28 December. In case you're interested.


  • HW
    Surely if its so precious, it would be a heck of a lot more expensive..? Basic economics/commerce... I'm not to great at chemistry, but i would imagine there is a similar gas which is just as safe, is lighter than air; which could be used as an alternative?
  • Gary
    What a crock of scaremongering crap. Balloons use ballon gas - which is recycled used medicinal helium.
  • Owen
    It's the MRI scanners and particle colliders that are using the helium as they need it for cooling as it's the closest to absolute zero that can be reached
  • Chewbacca
    Right, but you;ve missed the main point in your "article": The reason we're running out of helium so quickly is that the worlds' largest stockpile is in the US, and they have decided to sell it at a massive discount to get id of it. BW-research your fucking shit better you mongols.
  • Inspector G.
    Sadly, this is a very serious subject that we do need to take notice of. The only way to get the British public onside is if a celebrity chef gets involved.
  • zeddy
    @Inspector Gadget And he talks in a helium-induced squeaky voice?
  • Me
    The space is full of helium. In 50 years they will send mining ships to fuck up all resources in outer space anyway.
  • Angry R.
    What's Joe Pasquale going to do?
  • Chewbacca
    @Me Where is this "the space" you speak of? If you're referring to what's commonly known as "space", then how do you "mine" a vacuum? Now, shut up, the adults are talking. You total fucking retarded cretin spastic.
  • comecon
    Time to go back to the hydrogen! Mwahahahaaa!
  • jt
    "I’m not to great at chemistry, but i would imagine there is a similar gas which is just as safe, is lighter than air; which could be used as an alternative?" You're correct, you're "not to great at chemistry". Now go outside and play with these hydrogen balloons.
  • Dave C.
    Liquid helium currently costs ca. £5/L. Obviously a lot of the cost is getting it liquid in the first place. It cools MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers - the latter type of instrument is absolutely essential in modern chemistry research. Essentially, when He was cheap, supercooled magnets were optimised to run at liquid He temperature. The inner dewer is liquid He, the outer dewar is liquid nitrogen When these magnets are set up (from room temperature), the dewars are cooled to liquid nitrogen temperature, with a vast quantity boiling off in the process. Then the inner dewar is filled with liquid He, and much more boils off than is actually present in the dewar at the end of the day. At this point the magnet is superconducting. After this you need to top up the magnet monthly. I work in a Chemistry department - every few months the supplier comes to us and cuts our He allocation down by a number of litres and bumps up the price. You cant use liquid hydrogen - it's 16 K higher so you need to redesign the magnets anyway (to be superconducting at 20 K) and it's a fucking horrendous safety risk. You need ~40 - 100 L PER MAGNET, which will boil off to give hundreds to thousands of litres of hydrogen. Neon is, AFAIK, the next practical gas (27 K). Current research is focussed on magnets that are superconducting at this temperature. Next stop after that is nitrogen, at 77 K.
  • MylarBalloonFan
    Ban Rubber Balloons!! Mylar Balloons Forever! I don't care about helium, I just want a hard infleted Foil Mylar Balloon in my bed

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