This Thursday, many of us will begin celebrating by watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s a tradition for me... In the 1980’s, I stood in the crowd a few times, and my favorite part wasn’t the floats and musicians – it was, of course, the great big helium balloons. What I didn’t know then, is that the helium that makes them soar isn’t limitless and we count on this element for far more important reasons than holiday fanfare.
Helium is located underground in pockets frequently associated with natural gas. It’s abundant on a cosmic scale, but not for our regular use. And short of fission or the nuclear fusion of two hydrogen atoms, we can’t produce it artificially. Three years ago, the National Academies concluded that helium reserves are being tapped too quickly. Compounding matters, the price is artificially low so there's little incentive to attempt to recover or recycle it.
If we maintain our current rate of consumption, the global supply of helium is expected to dwindle in about 40 years. That’s not all that far away. And unfortunately, this doesn’t just mean fewer party balloons. You see, helium has unique properties that we depend on for a variety of reasons. It’s light, but not combustible with a low boiling point and high thermal conductivity. For example, liquified helium is needed for the super conducting magnets in MRIs. It’s also crucial for aerospace engineering, cryogenics, and deep-sea exploration.
And here’s the important part: In many cases, there is no substitute.
Of course the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just a drop in the bucket in terms of global helium use. Still, it’s a visible reminder that we use this special element without much regard for the future - something to keep in mind as Buzz Lightyear soars to infinity and beyond.
That said, enjoy the parade and I hope readers have a wonderful holiday!