Helium reserves are about to run out, several newspapers wrote many years ago. “That’s not true, but it is difficult to capture,” researcher says.

Are we really running out of helium?

ASK A RESEARCHER: “There has been a lot of talk about the world running out of helium,” says professor.

Do you sometimes celebrate birthdays and special events with floating balloons filled with helium?

You should know better, Forskerforum magazine wrote in 2013 (link in Norwegian).

Why? Because helium is more important for research, and because the reserves may be running out.

Many years have passed, and balloons continue to float in the air.

When will someone take real responsibility?

We need helium

“There has been a lot of talk about the world running out of helium,” Professor Reidar G. Trønnes says.

This is the reason why several municipalities in Norway say no to helium balloons on Constitution Day, May 17th: less plastic waste and less use of helium.

Reidar G. Trønnes is associated with the Natural History Museum and the University of Oslo’s Norwegian Center for Mineralogy.

That is the reason why several municipalities say no to helium balloons on 17 May: less plastic waste and less use of helium.

“It would be foolish if it ran out, because the helium is necessary,” says Trønnes.

Helium cools down magnets in MRI machines that examine people for cancer and other diseases.

It is also used to make super-fast trains – such as the Shinkansen train in Japan.

Relies on human effort

“However, the good news is that we're not running out of helium,” Trønnes says.

The Earth's interior is absolutely enormous, and this is where the helium comes from.

“It will continue to seep out through rocks and cracks forever,” he says.

The drama lies in the fact that we keep inventing more and more technology that requires helium, like the high-speed trains.

“It ultimately falls to us humans to figure out how to efficiently extract it,” he says.

Helium is elusive

Today, we extract helium where we extract oil and natural gas.

However, this method does not yield enough helium to satisfy our needs.

“We need to research better ways to capture it. Otherwise, it just continues to leak out,” Trønnes says.

Once released into the atmosphere, it’s impossible to retrieve it.

In 2018, the sale of helium balloons was banned in 31 Norwegian municipalities. This measure aimed to reduce plastic pollution in the environment and conserve helium resources.

“Helium is the second lightest gas after hydrogen,” he says.

That's why a helium balloon rises to the ceiling if you let it go.

Donald Duck voice

Inhaling helium can temporarily give you a squeaky, high-pitched Donald Duck voice.

The light molecules in helium make the sound waves from your voice travel faster through the air.

“If so much helium is released into the world, could we all end up with Donald Duck voices?”

“Helium that escapes from the Earth becomes very diluted in the air,” the researcher says.

And just as helium balloons eventually float away into space, so does free helium.

No to balloon shame

Have you noticed how helium balloons gradually deflate until they lie on the ground?

This happens because helium slowly permeates the balloon’s rubber material.

“It wants out. In the end, you’re left with just an empty balloon,” Trønnes says.

“Do you think we should stop buying helium balloons?”

“It’s important not to be wasteful,” he says.

He considers the costs of helium gas and rubber more than the aesthetics. You can still have a great party without balloons.

“But fortunately, we will always have helium. As long as it doesn't become too expensive to capture,” he says.


Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik

Read the Norwegian version of this article on ung.forskning.no

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