This article concludes with a True/False Quiz to see just how good your knowledge of helium really is.
TRUE or FALSE??
When a crisis of any kind occurs in our world today, there seems to be a propensity to want to twist the facts to either make a better story (in the media) or cause more of a stir. The very same holds true when talking about helium and the predicament we are in because of the short supply of this most necessary gas for our industry. Here is a little quiz you can take to see just how much you think you really know about helium in the world today:
The world is going to run out of helium by 2015.
The U.S. government’s strategic stockpile will be largely sold off by 2015. The world still has tremendous unexploited helium reserves.
Helium price increases are the result of price gouging by suppliers who are making excessive profits.
Despite the price increases, helium profitability is not much different from other gases. Helium profitability has recovered after a series of cost shocks and reduced margins earlier in the decade.
Helium is the only gas on earth that is lighter than air.
Helium is the second lightest element and second smallest molecule behind only Hydrogen. This acronym 4H MEDIC ANNA will help you remember all the lighter than air gases:
H – Hydrogen
H – Helium
H – Hydrogen Cyanide
H – Hydrogen Fluoride
M – Methane
E – Ethylene
D – Diborane
I – Illuminating Gases
C – Carbon Monoxide
A – Acetylene
N – Neon
N – Nitrogen
A – Ammonia
Helium is the only gas used to lift balloons.
Many of the gases listed above are not practical for use in balloons, but they have been used. The following combine poor lift with objectionable properties: carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen fluoride, diborane, ethylene and acetylene. Nitrogen has negligible lift. Neon is harmless and offers a modest degree of lift; however it costs roughly the same as helium, another noble gas with far superior lift. The four remaining gases (ammonia, methane, helium, and hydrogen) have been used as balloon gases.
Ammonia has sometimes been used to fill weather balloons. Due to its relatively high boiling point (compared to helium and hydrogen), ammonia could potentially be refrigerated and liquefied aboard an airship to reduce lift and add ballast (and returned to a gas to add lift and reduce ballast).
Methane (the chief component of natural gas) is sometimes used as a lift gas when hydrogen and helium are not available. It has the advantage of not leaking through balloon walls as rapidly as the small-moleculed hydrogen and helium. (Most lighter-than-air balloons are made of aluminized plastic that limits such leakage; hydrogen and helium leak rapidly through latex balloons.).
Helium is used primarily for balloon sales.
Helium is a very, very strategic element and has many different uses other than for balloons. 20% of the entire world’s output of helium is used for MRI machines. These medical machines you find in nearly every hospital in our world, and in special MRI centers and doctors offices, use more helium than any other single category of helium user on Earth today. And therein lays a huge problem for the balloon industry. When the going gets tough for helium distribution, the medical, military and high tech fields will get first crack at the gas long before it is distributed for party balloons or parades.
Balloons fall in the helium usage category of “Lifting,” along with parade balloons, scientific and weather observation, the military, DEA and border surveillance craft (e.g. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAV’s), blimps for advertising and TV broadcasting, heavy lifting and automotive air bags. All of these items together form the “Balloon/Lifting/Inflation category for helium usage.
Surely all of these lifting items together use a huge amount of the worldwide supply of helium?
The entire category of “Lifting” usage for helium only uses 8% of the world’s supply of the gas. We are mightily beaten by the previously mentioned MRI (20%); welding (17%) and lab work (10%) categories.
Chemically speaking, helium’s most valuable property is that it is a lighter than air gas.
Though it’s lighter than air quality is fairly unique and very useful, today helium is used in many different applications because of its other special qualities. These days, it is most sought after because it can get so incredibly cold and not freeze.
Colorless, odorless, tasteless gas
Chemically and radiologically inert – helium is non-reactive and does not become radioactive
Second lightest element and second smallest molecule
Helium has the lowest condensation point of any substance (–452°F)
Helium remains liquid even at absolute zero (-459F/-273C)
Helium gas has very high specific heat and thermal conductivity
So what’s the up and coming product for helium usage and who is using it? There is actually a clue in this story. Find it if you can!
You won’t believe it when I tell you…it is flat screen monitors, TV’s and LCD’s!!
Asian countries producing LCD panels of any kind use helium in every single screen. Asia now accounts for 25% of all helium usage in the world today primarily because of LCD technology.
So, the business of balloons commands only a very, very small portion of the helium pie. Prices will unfortunately continue to rise. True to what we were told, Life O’ The Party has experienced one major price increase so far this year. The hope is there will be a leveling off of supply and demand issues and the costs will stabilize.
Can we be sure? No, not any more sure than we can be of oil and farming and insurance and housing prices and the mortgage crisis and, and, and – it goes on and on for all of us.