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What’s up with helium... or ‘what’s down,’ should we say?

There’s nothing that deflates holiday profits more than the lost revenue of balloon sales. But if helium is the second most abundant element in the universe… and it is… then, what’s the problem?

While helium is abundant in the air, very little is available on Earth, itself. Both hydrogen (most abundant) and helium (second-most abundant) are too light to be held by gravity, as we see when we watch a balloon soar into the sky.

3d-rendered-orbs-green-large-studio-floating-depth-abstract-free-stock-photoConsequently, the only helium we use is harvested from inside our planet, produced from the decay of radioactive elements.

It takes several thousands of years for this process to occur, and when it does, the decayed elements give off alpha particles which attract electrons from the surrounding area to become helium atoms. In effect, helium is extracted from the earth in the same way that natural gas is extracted.

Today, the largest amount of helium is buried in the Great Plains. In 1925, the U.S. government built the world’s largest helium storage facility, known as the National Helium Reserve, near Amarillo, Texas, and for many years, the United States produced 90 percent of the world’s commercial helium. The United States currently uses half of the world’s known supply of helium. No... we’re not balloon-crazy, party animals here in the United States! Helium is also used for large medical equipment, NASA rockets, welding, and certain computer and television screens.

The uniqueness of helium versus almost every other element is that it can get much colder than other gases and does not catch fire, preventing expensive, sensitive equipment from over-heating. Helium has the lowest boiling point of any other element.      

At present, there are 35 million cubic meters of helium left in the world. By some estimates, that gives us 20 years of helium-topia, though I’ve also read it could supply us for 117 years.

However long it is, when it’s gone it’s gone. But don’t under-estimate modern science, and most definitely, don’t underestimate our favorite balloon companies from offering many decorating alternatives!