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NewsFlash: Ballooning Helium Prices Sink Research Ambitions

NewsFlash: Ballooning Helium Prices Sink Research Ambitions

The price of helium gas continues to rise as the United States gradually sells off its strategic reserve. This inert gas may be most commonly known for making balloons fly (or voices squeak), but its unique properties make it extremely valuable for scientific research and engineering projects as well. Helium, a noble gas, is non-toxic, extremely light (second only to hydrogen), and nonflammable (unlike hydrogen), making it safe for use in a wide variety of applications, including blimps, some telescopes, gas chromatography devices, lasers, and even welding processes. Helium also has the lowest boiling point of any element (4.22° K, or -452.1° F). In a liquid state, it behaves as a superfluid with unique properties, including no viscosity. These special characteristics, combined with the fact that helium remains in liquid form at very low temperatures, make it very useful for cooling the superconducting magnets in the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. 

Current limits on research budgets and increasing helium costs have made it more difficult to afford and obtain this crucial component. In response, some scientists are investing in equipment that captures a portion of the helium that escapes from Earth-based devices. These tools are costly, but scientists trust that their investment will pay off as helium’s price continues to soar. Another option, of course, is to find ways to use less helium. However, creative methods that limit helium requirements often preclude the use of the most effective research instruments

The situation is not ideal, but it may produce long-term benefits. Helium gas is the second-most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), but it is scarce in Earth’s atmosphere (five parts per million) because free-floating helium can (and does) actually escape into space. The impracticality of “mining” helium from the atmosphere means that most of the current supply is extracted from the ground, along with natural gas. Thus, as natural gas stores are exhausted, helium—a non-renewable resource—also will become increasingly rare. Current efforts to develop and utilize equipment that reclaims helium before it vanishes into the upper atmosphere will enable scientists to use this limited resource more efficiently.

Extension Activities
Review the concepts of floating/sinking and density with videos from the Science Concepts Explained series. Helium-filled balloons fly because helium is less dense than surrounding air.

Gravity and Buoyancy – Students learn about the effects of gravity and reduced gravity by observing the behavior of a water-filled plastic bag, both outside and inside a container of water. After doing the activity, ask students How does buoyancy relate to helium balloons? (Because the helium in the balloon is less dense than the surrounding air, it floats up and away from the pull of gravity.) Explain that free helium is actually able to escape Earth’s atmosphere. 

Fossil Fuels and the Carbon Cycle – Students model geologists’ use of “core samples” in the search for fossil fuels and learn about the concept of non-renewable resources. After completing the activity, ask students, Are fossil fuels the only non-renewable resources on Earth? Remind students that helium is extracted along with natural gas, but it is useless as a fuel source. Nonetheless, it is extremely valuable for scientific research, health care and even construction. Since it can escape the atmosphere, it is a non-renewable resource that must be used wisely.