The Current

From balloons to MRIs: Why helium is important

Helium is a finite resource that could run out. Some even think kids' helium balloons are now just too frivolous a use for a gas that's necessary to make MRIs work. Prepare to burst your pre-conceived notions of helium.
Are there sustainable ways to develop helium? Or is that full of hot air? (fdecomite/flickr cc)

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If the world were to run out of helium, it would mean much more than the end of fun balloons.

Helium is a critical commodity in several scientific fields — including medical technology.

Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at the University College London tells The Current's host Mike Finnerty how helium works.

"Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe."

He explains that in the case of helium balloons, "because the gas is so light then those balloons are actually buoyant, they float in the air and that's one of the reasons why it has this kind of magical quality that we find so amusing."

The fact that helium atoms don’t stick to each other is an inertness that helps make helium incredibly useful, " says chemistry professor Andrea Sella. (Keoni Cabral/flickr cc)
However, he says the problem is "atoms of the helium are incredibly light and therefore move extremely fast." 

Sella explains the atoms are as fast as a rocket going up to the International Space Station and it means they escape the earth's pull of gravity, floating through the atmosphere and leaking into space.

"On the planet, any helium that we have in the atmosphere will actually be progressively lost and so where do we get our helium from? We actually mine it," Sella tells Finnerty.

As Sella explains, helium is a finite resource. Fears that helium resources could be depleted have been growing for several years now. However, last week, a major helium reserve was discovered in Tanzania that has at least doubled proven reserves.

At the current rates of consumption, it's expected that the world's known reserves of helium will run out sometime between 2030 and 2040. The U.S.'s strategic helium reserve has the largest storage of the element.

Here is why helium can change a voice to sound like Donald Duck?

So how is helium used beyond inflating balloons?

Well without helium, there'd be a significant difference in medical care. Medical scanners such as MRIs use helium that we use for diagnostics. As well, the element is crucial for scientists and people who work in laboratories.

As well, Stella notes that the importance of helium goes beyond experiments that use the element for cooling or reaching certain temperatures.

"From a science point of view, helium is totally essential to us. All kinds of experiments in quantum computing and understanding magnetism and the structure of our world really require helium because it is the best and simplest way for us to get to those very low temperatures."

Listen to our full conversation on helium and how Canada may become a bigger player in the world helium industry.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Peggy Lam.