In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here is a red balloon
I think of you and let it go
— 99 Red Balloons Nena
Whenever I hear this song I think back to my youth, and get a sense of freedom and joy, an overwhelming desire to spin.
That desire popped, much like a balloon, as soon as I learned that we are depleting our helium reserves in the U.S., and the helium balloon, that amazing anti-gravity children’s toy, may not be around for my grandkids. Imagine not seeing the wonder in a baby’s face as he tries to figure out why this thing goes up… instead of down.
Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. There are pockets of the gas in Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma and Russia has large pockets of natural gas, helium included, but there has not been a push to extract it. Further, a great deal of Helium is lost in the process of separating it from oil and natural gas. As the oil and gas are brought out of the ground, the Helium comes with them, but it is not captured as it releases, so it drifts up into the atmosphere and … away. The world’s largest pocket of Helium is located in the Texas Panhandle, and at our current rate of use, that reserve will be depleted by 2015.
In personal terms, this means Monkey will probably not have a balloon arch at her prom, and Otter may not be choosing a balloon from a vendor at a carnival by the time he is eight.
Helium can be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors, and is an indirect side effect of fisson reactors, but the amount created by both these sources don’t begin to reach our current use. Basically, it has taken billions of years for the Earth to create our Helium stores, so it’s not really a build on demand kind of resource.
Helium can be recycled, and the larger industries users, such as NASA, do recycle it. However, any Helium released into the atmosphere is lost to the Earth forever, and there are no small users currently recycling the gas. To learn more, read up on the issue.
If we are not careful with our Helium, we will be waving goodbye to a childhood tradition, in addition to a scientific resource. This is such a amazing substance, with nothing else like it on earth. It is our connection to the unbelievable, the fantastic, the magical. Let’s do our best to keep it around.