Unpopular Opinion: We need to stop taking helium for granted


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See why Columnist Max Honermeier says we should stop wasting helium on balloons.

By Max Honermeier, Opinion Columnist

We need to cease taking helium for granted before the last of it vanishes like a child letting go of a balloon.

The most important use of helium is to keep superconducting magnets at the low temperatures they need to operate. Lifesaving technologies like magnetic resonance imaging machines can’t help doctors diagnose their patients without it. 

On Thanksgiving, thousands flock to the streets of Chicago to witness huge helium balloons of their favorite characters parade through the city. What the masses don’t see is the last of a precious resource being allowed to float away, never to return. This madness needs to stop. A parade can be enjoyed without the huge, wasteful sacks soaring above. 

Helium is the second lightest element on the periodic table and has several useful properties. While most think of helium as the funny gas that makes your voice squeaky, it also has the lowest boiling point of any element, just four degrees celsius above absolute zero. This ability to exist as an extremely cold liquid makes it invaluable to the operation of medical and scientific equipment.

“An MRI can’t function without some 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium keeping its magnets cool enough to work,” according to the Iowa Hospital Association.

The particle accelerators used for high energy physics experiments also rely on these irreplaceable magnets with liquid helium coursing through their metallic veins. Scientists striving to uncover the quantum mysteries of our universe can’t move forward without precious helium.

Something so valuable isn’t going to last forever. All of the helium on earth was created as the product of radioactive decay, a process that takes millions of years. 

“… (Helium) is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. As fossil fuel deposits dwindle, so does the supply of helium.

The tendency for helium in the atmosphere to rise away into space means that it’s constantly being lost. The scientific and medical industries make an effort to conserve and recycle helium, meanwhile the public is squandering it. The same gas that could be saving lives or furthering our understanding of the universe is being consumed for the cheap thrill of watching a colorful bag float.