Voice: A wedding party is instantly brighter with a bunch of floating balloons tied to the back of the bride and groom’s chairs. And a kid’s birthday party isn't complete unless the birthday boy or girl has a colourful balloon to hang onto.
Gangs of happy children love wandering around a theme park holding bunches of brightly-coloured balloons. They're also a popular way for promoters to draw attention to the product they’re selling. Surely, all this is innocent stuff. There can’t possibly be anything sinister about holding a colourful balloon on the end of a piece of string. Can there?
According to Professor Tom Welton, a highly respected scientist at Imperial College, London, the days of the fun floating balloon could soon be coming to an end. Everything isn’t as innocent as people think. The problem is the gas that makes the balloon float.
Floating balloons are filled with helium, a gas that is lighter than air. Helium is extracted from deep under the surface of the Earth, usually as a by-product of natural gas extraction. And, like natural gas, the Earth’s resources of helium are in danger of running out.
Professor Welton explains that we are not going to suddenly run out of helium in the near future, but that in thirty to fifty years time, there will definitely be a shortage. Professor Welton is concerned that today we are wasting helium by putting it into balloons and just allowing it to escape into the atmosphere with no thought for tomorrow.
Many scientists believe that filling balloons with helium is an irresponsible use of this important gas. So why is it important?
In hospitals, MRI scanners need helium to cool down the magnets that operate them. An MRI scanner is a device that gives doctors detailed images of what is going on inside a patient’s body. It cannot function properly without helium, and no substitute has been found to replace the gas if supplies should ever run out.
The American Nobel-Prize-winning scientist Robert Richardson has suggested that the price of one helium-filled balloon to be raised to at least seven hundred dollars. The cry that helium is wasted in party balloons is getting louder, but whether party people will listen is another matter.
Next time you're tempted to let another helium-filled balloon float up into the sky think carefully. It’s not just a balloon but one of our planet’s most valuable resources that you are watching soar off into thin air.