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From Tim O'Reilly:

Good Q?, the kind politicians are loathe to answer RT @jamesoreilly: "Is it right to waste helium on party balloons?" http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24903034

and from the linked article:

Some scientists believe a finite resource that could one day run out should not be used for party balloons.

"We're going to be looking back and thinking, I can't believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it's so precious and unique," says Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers, who has called for the end to helium-filled party balloons.

...

"I suspect the amount that is used in party balloons is quite small compared to the other main uses of it," says Dr Wothers.

"But it's just a rather trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more."

Is helium being used on party balloons at the expense of other purposes?

Related question about whether there is a helium shortage, and whether we are at risk of running out of helium forever: Is there a worldwide helium shortage?

5
  • Wouldn't any helium in the "balloon gas" simply be released back into the atmosphere when the balloon is deflated, i.e. the helium would be 100% recycled?
    – tcrosley
    Nov 18 '13 at 6:27
  • 1
    @tcrosley The BBC article states in paragraphs 2 to 4 that helium that goes into the atmosphere is effectively lost: "On Earth it is relatively rare, and one of the few elements that escapes gravity and leaks away into space." Nov 18 '13 at 6:51
  • I would love if this was expanded to include blimps
    – Andrey
    Nov 18 '13 at 15:36
  • 1
    Balloons!!! Wasted? I think not.
    – user1873
    Nov 28 '14 at 18:00
  • 1
    @user1873 Why is helium being wasted on counter-terrorism when they could be used for party balloons? Nov 29 '14 at 10:31
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Nobel laureate physicist Robert Coleman Richardson who is famous for his work on Helium-3:

"In 1996, the US Congress decided to sell off the strategic reserve and the consequence was that the market was swelled with cheap helium because its price was not determined by the market. The motivation was to sell it all by 2015," Professor Richardson said.

[...]

Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 (£75) to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain.

"Once helium is released into the atmosphere in the form of party balloons or boiling helium it is lost to the Earth forever, lost to the Earth forever," he emphasised.

Per http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/why-the-world-is-running-out-of-helium-2059357.html

As a scientist he's in a far more neutral position to put these claims forward than the Balloon Association, as they have a direct benefit from claiming it's not being wasted.

And regarding to the speculation that this Helium would be less pure

For large-scale use, helium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which can contain up to 7% helium. Since helium has a lower boiling point than any other element, low temperature and high pressure are used to liquefy nearly all the other gases (mostly nitrogen and methane). The resulting crude helium gas is purified by successive exposures to lowering temperatures, in which almost all of the remaining nitrogen and other gases are precipitated out of the gaseous mixture. Activated charcoal is used as a final purification step, usually resulting in 99.995% pure Grade-A helium.

Per Wikipedia per The Encyclopedia of the Chemical Elements (to which I don't have access)

There apparently is a fairly generic process that can succesfully purify helium (which is a lot harder with some other chemicals) and thus it's the exact same Helium that balloon sellers are using and that is used in other fields.

3
  • What you've quoted doesn't provide evidence that the gas used in party balloons could be used for other, more important, uses. Nov 27 '14 at 22:01
  • @AndrewGrimm The purity issue (which I think you're referring to) was only brought up in your answer, not in the original question. Nov 28 '14 at 0:35
  • @AndrewGrimm: The process quoted would be the same one used to purify helium+air mixture. Thus you can use the party balloon gas as a source of helium (indeed a cheaper source since it's alreadly 97% pure) instead of natural gas.
    – slebetman
    Dec 2 '14 at 6:19
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The UK's Balloon Association denies this is the case. From Helium shortage prompts scientist's balloon use warning (Hat tip: Joep Grooten)

But John Lee, the association's chairman insisted that the helium its members put into balloons, was not depriving the medical profession of the gas.

"The helium we use is not pure," he said. "It's recycled from the gas which is used in the medical industry, and mixed with air. We call it balloon gas rather than helium for that reason.

"There is no way the balloon and party industry would even consider taking badly-needed helium from the medical profession. That is important - people have to come first.

"If I thought this industry was taking helium away from the medical profession, I would be looking at doing things differently."

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  • While interesting and a great answer, any idea if "balloon gas" is used in other regions too? Nov 17 '13 at 18:18
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    Either "balloon gas" is different in Australia or the Balloon Association is being tricky with their words. The balloon gas sold by BOC, while not of the many-nines purity you'd find in cooling LH, is specified as being fairly pure helium (97%). It may be recycled and mixed with air, but not a whole lot of air.
    – Compro01
    Nov 18 '13 at 14:54
  • @Compro01, 97% purity may sound like a lot, but about the only thing it's good for is as a lifting gas. For any other use where you need helium (and can't substitute something like nitrogen or argon), it's hopelessly contaminated.
    – Mark
    Nov 27 '14 at 21:30
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    @Mark Given that it was obtained in the first place from its being 7% in natural gas, "in which almost all of the remaining nitrogen and other gases are precipitated out of the gaseous mixture", what justification can there be for saying that "97% purity is hopelessly contaminated"?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 28 '14 at 1:30
  • 1
    Instead of "hopelessly contaminated" would it be true to say "easily decontaminated"?
    – ChrisW
    Nov 28 '14 at 8:13

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