How is it that helium is a rare element needed for X-rays that we will run out of but is used for silly things like balloons and voice modifiers?


How is it that helium is a rare element needed for X-rays that we will run out of but is used for silly things like balloons and voice modifiers?

In: Chemistry

It’s so light that rises to the very edge of our atmosphere and can even escape. Our sources of helium are largely in underground natural gas and oil reserves.

Helium isn’t rare. You can extract it from the atmosphere using a technique called fractional distillation – which is how a lot of industrial gases (like argon and neon) are produced.

However, helium is also a “waste” product of natural gas extraction. In particular, natural gas from the midwest US contains huge amounts of helium in it. That helium needs to be removed from the natural gas before the gas can be burned, which results in way more helium being produced each year than is needed. This means helium is cheap.

Its so cheap, in fact, that very few people bother capturing the helium that they purify out of natural gas. Even though there are tons of sources of helium, there are only a handful of plants that produce it worldwide. This means that you end up with a shortage if one of those plants goes offline.

The main plant currently producing helium in the US is owned by the US Government and it will probably run out at some point in the next 10-20 years. Because of that, its very easy to write a sensationalist headline to the effect of “world about to run out of helium!”

But the world isn’t about to run out of helium – again there is tons of helium produced every year, but most of it is just vented into the air as waste. Its not hard to capture that helium. And even if we run out of natural gas, helium is a renewable resource that is easy to extract from the air. All that’s happening is that one of the main helium plants is shutting down soon. When that happens someone will open up a new helium plant and everything will remain normal.

Helium was stored as a government essential gas, however policy changed so that storage was no longer regarded as essential so the store was sold off and people used it for balloons. Helium is constantly being created on Earth, but the gas is also lost to space, it may become more difficult to extract, however it isn’t going to “run out”

Helium is not needed for X-rays. Liquid helium is used for the superconducting magnet in an MRI machine.

Both MRI and X-ray are medical imaging techniques but they do not work the same way.

We use a byproduct called balloon gas in “helium” balloons. During the production of helium the byproduct is balloon gas. Balloon gas is helium mixed with other gaseous impurities. Balloon gas could be further refined to remove the impurities, but the expense to do so outweighs the yield so it is either released to the atmosphere or collected and sold as balloon gas.