Better uses for helium than a party trick

Posted on 22 Apr 2015 by Aiden Burgess

The potential for helium to one day run out has put paid to the notion that it should be used for amusement purposes.

Despite being the second most common element in the universe, helium is relatively rare on Earth as it is one of the few elements that escapes gravity and leaks away into space.

Helium is of key importance for superconducting magnets used in MRI scanners, due to it having the lowest boiling point of any element (-269 C)

This makes it ideal for the function of the scanners, which must be supercooled to generate the powerful magnetic fields required.

About 120 tonnes of liquid helium is used at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to keep its superconducting systems at a chilly 1.9 K (which is 1.9 degrees above absolute zero).

This valuable use of the element and its rarity on our planet has raised the question of whether its popular use for amusement purposes such as in balloons is a good idea.

Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers is one of those calling for an end to helium-filled party balloons.

“We’re going to be looking back and thinking, I can’t believe people just used to fill up balloons with it, when it’s so precious and unique,” he said.

“It is something we need to think about,

“I suspect the amount that is used in party balloons is quite small compared to the other main uses of it,

“But it’s just a rather trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more.”

As well as its wasteful use, using helium in a balloon to create a squeaky voice by breathing it in can cause dizziness, headaches and even death.

Helium balloons also harmful to the environment

When an exploded balloon floats in water it can appear to be a squid or other marine animal.

The balloon is then ingested by birds and marine animals which then starve from the blockage of their digestive tract, with death also occurring by the animal becoming entangled in the strings.

Residents of the US island of Nantucket this month voted to prohibit the use of the floating party favours, a measure supporters said would protect marine animals who often mistake the deflated balloons for food.

Balloon ribbon tape attached to a balloon still inside the gut of a juvenile Black-browed Albatross - image courtesy of Todd Burrows and Birds Queensland.
Balloon ribbon tape attached to a balloon still inside the gut of a juvenile Black-browed Albatross – image courtesy of Todd Burrows and Birds Queensland.

A dead Black-browed Albatross was recently found off the coast of South East Queensland with balloon tape dangling from its mouth.

Ornothological society, Birds Queensland, has launched a campaign to increase awareness of the potential damage caused by the release of helium balloons and is campaigning for the release of the balloons to be banned as they are a serious threat to wildlife and a source of litter.

“There are many other ways to celebrate special occasions without using these balloons, with the consequent danger to our wildlife,” said conservation officer, Sandra Dunglison.

The group is calling on people to join a petition to Minister for the Environment The Hon Greg Hunt MP to request the ban of ceremonial balloon releases. You can view the petition here: