Helium is used for much more than balloons

ByThelma M. Gutowski

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Youngsters could know that balloons are undesirable for wildlife. This is mainly because, when it’s filled with helium, a balloon can vacation several miles into the sky prior to it loses the skill to float. When it falls back to Earth, the string, rubber or Mylar gets to be a hazard for birds, turtles and lots of other creatures that can develop into tangled in or choke on what they mistake for a tasty take care of.

But many people today never notice that there is an additional explanation to cling onto people balloons: The helium inside of is a scarce source.

“I feel that a single of the coolest matters is that helium is the next-most considerable ingredient in the overall universe, but ironically, on earth Earth, we only have really, incredibly modest amounts,” stated Santiago Toledo, a chemist at American College in Washington, D.C.

This is genuine for a number of explanations. For case in point, helium atoms do not like to make bonds with other features or even themselves. This results in them possessing a pretty very low density — considerably decreased than the density of the particles that make up air, Toledo mentioned.

So when you force a bunch of helium into an enclosed area, this kind of as a balloon, that lower density enables the helium to increase above the heavier air close to it. This is why helium balloons float.

It is also why Earth has so little of the stuff, he explained. Most of the planet’s helium is locked away underground, ordinarily as a mixture with natural gas, mentioned Toledo. But any time helium is uncovered to open up air, it will disappear into space.

This is type of lousy news, simply because helium has loads of employs outside of birthday party decorations. Even though most of us know it as a gas, helium turns into a liquid at really cold temperatures.

“We’re conversing about temperatures that are just about what is called ‘absolute zero,’ which is the coldest nearly anything can be in the universe,” Toledo stated. Due to the fact of this quirk, researchers use liquid helium to retain several kinds of devices ice-chilly.

If you have at any time experienced to get a medical test identified as an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, helium was there to amazing the superconducting magnets that make the machines get the job done. In addition, helium is crucial for generating electronic equipment such as smartphones, as effectively as the fiber-optic cables that give us the net. Helium is also necessary to make sure NASA’s rockets operate correctly and is an significant component of equipment named magnetometers, which help the U.S. navy detect enemy submarines.

The good news, reported Toledo, is that balloons really do not include only helium, but instead a mixture of light-weight gases. Still when he sees one get free into the sky, all he can assume about is how a precious useful resource is just floating up, up and away.