What’s a party without balloons or Thanksgiving without Macy’s parade? As a culture, we have grown accustomed to celebrating special events like birthdays and holidays with balloons. It’s hard to imagine a celebration without them.
But did you know the world is currently facing a helium shortage?
I certainly didn’t. I didn’t find out until I went shopping for a birthday celebration recently and had to visit three different stores to finally find helium balloons for sale. I thought how strange and frustrating it was, as I went on this unforeseen mission, that helium balloons had become a commodity. When I vented about my experience to a Party City employee, he simply told me, “It might have something to do with the helium shortage.”
It seemed silly at the time. Why is there a helium shortage? What is helium even used for, other than balloons?
I was surprised by the answers. A quick Google search enlightened me with many articles that defined the multiple uses of this natural gas and the reason we are experiencing a worldwide shortage.
According to Live Science, “the Federal Helium Reserve started shortly after World War I, when helium was used to float military reconnaissance aircraft. Since then, helium has proven to be indispensable in a wide range of industrial and medical uses.”
Helium is essential to magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) machines; it regulates the temperatures of powerful magnets needed to create MRI scans. Helium is irreplaceable in this aspect, because out of all the elements, helium has the lowest melting point and boiling point. It will not melt or react with other elements.
Helium is also necessary for lasers used in laser eye surgery, manufacturing computer chips, thermo graphic cameras and other equipment used by medical personnel. NASA uses helium for rocket engine testing and to keep hot gases and cold liquid fuel separated during rocket lift-off.
The easiest explanation for the helium shortage is that, while helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, most of it exists in space. Helium that exists on the Earth’s surface is so light it escapes from the atmosphere. The only way to gather helium is as we have done for so long, from underground. But demand for helium has outpaced supply, and the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve does not have enough.
With the multiple and more important uses of such a critical component, it’s no wonder helium balloons are not easily found during this shortage. Suddenly, it seems unethical to waste helium on party balloons.