Scientist slams use of precious helium in party balloons

Diminishing helium supplies should be used for life-saving equipment not balloons, says professor

LAST UPDATED AT 14:33 ON Fri 21 Sep 2012

HELIUM is being squandered on children's party balloons when it should be kept for use in life-saving equipment, an academic has claimed.

Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College, has told Radio 4's Today programme that using the gas to pump up balloons is "absolutely the wrong use of helium".

The noble gas, which is extracted from the earth's crust and cannot be manmade, is apparently running out.

Its unique combination of properties means it is lighter than air and particularly useful as a coolant. MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, needing up to 10,000 litres to function.

"You're not going into an MRI scanner because you've got a sore toe," said Prof Welton. "When I had mine they were mapping a tumour. This is important stuff."

But he said seeing people literally floating helium into the air in balloons is "hugely frustrating".

He concluded: "We're not going to run out of helium tomorrow, but on the 30 to 50 year time scale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don't manage to do something in the meantime."

The US provides 75 per cent of the six billion cubic feet of helium used worldwide every year. The gas is refined in only a handful of industrial plants across the world, several of which are currently undergoing repairs or suffering shortages, reports The Daily Telegraph.

The gas is also critical for cooling infrared detectors, nuclear reactors and the machinery of wind tunnels. The space industry uses it in sensitive satellite equipment and spacecraft, and Nasa uses helium in huge quantities to purge potentially explosive fuel from its rockets.

Balloon shops have already reported shortages and price hikes of up to 20 per cent in the last few months. John Lee, chairman of the balloon industry body NABAS, last month told the Independent on Sunday that people have predicted that by 2020 there will be no more helium left for the party industry. · 

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