Without Helium…

Zachary Ninomiya, Cartoonist/Photojournalist

When asked to predict what would happen in a world without helium, Katrina La (11)

Zachary Ninomiya
Mikey the Mustang stares sadly at his balloon, which doesn’t float due to the lack of helium.

believes that “labs, experiments, and balloons would suffer in its absence.” Unfortunately, there is a chance that Katrina’s predictions may come true sooner than expected. The reason? The world is currently experiencing a helium shortage.

According to CNBC, mankind suffers from an inability to produce helium efficiently and economically. For one, helium can only be extracted from underground deposits or as a byproduct from natural gas deposits. To further complicate its acquisition, helium is lighter than air, meaning that it must be harvested quickly, lest it floats off into space.

One might ask, “why is helium so important?” Before this question can be answered, it is important to note some of helium’s special properties. According to NBCNews, helium is a highly stable element that can “cool things down to less than minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit.” Thus, it can be used as a coolant in places where other elements would prove to be too reactive or insufficiently cold.

Aside from its obvious use in the area of party decor, helium has a variety of uses in multiple industries. One of its primary uses comes from MRI scans. As mentioned in an article by Forbes, helium cools the wires in MRI machines which allows the wires in the machine to achieve a magnetic resistance that is necessary for the creation of a strong magnetic field. Without this magnetic field, the MRI machine would be unable to scan patients, or at worst, self destruct, according to WNYT news. Furthermore, helium also is essential in deep-sea exploration. Divers breathe a mixture of oxygen and helium to create a nitrogen-free atmosphere, preventing them from getting “the bends” upon resurfacing, as stated by USA Today. USA Today also explains that helium is used in space exploration, where it is used to pressurize fuel tanks or rockets and satellite instruments during their trip to space.

Without helium, humanity will have no deep-sea or space exploration. Humanity will also experience a setback in the medicinal area, and parties will be less amusing.

Fortunately, solutions have already been pitched to combat this helium crisis. The Conversation reports that new helium wells have been found in Saskawatchen, Canada. Recently, Party City, a major supplier of balloons, has also been offering alternatives to helium balloons, including balloon arches, balloon walls, and balloon garlands to appease any potential customer. WNYT has cited helium recycling as a possible solution to the helium crisis, where plans have been made to capture helium that has boiled off of MRI magnets and liquify it for later use. Unfortunately, USA Today criticizes this concept of recycling, claiming that potentially successful methods proved to be expensive and labor-intensive.

Due to all of the problems that have arisen due to the helium shortage, along with the fact that there is, as of yet, no known solution, humanity continues to hold its breath, in tense fear of what is yet to come.