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Imagine a World Without Balloons

Old 05-09-13, 05:39 PM
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Imagine a World Without Balloons

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/8dP_IzmgW0s" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

In 1925, the US Government got into the Helium business, to make sure our zeppelins could fly. We don't need dirigibles for warfare anymore, but comedians making their voices sound funny sounds like a vital national interest.

House voted 394-1 to keep the helium program alive.

I bet we could use some helium balloons to keep Guam from tipping over into the Pacific.
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Old 05-09-13, 06:10 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Wasn't there actually a helium shortage a few months ago? Maybe last summer?
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Old 05-09-13, 06:12 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by Mabuse View Post
Wasn't there actually a helium shortage a few months ago? Maybe last summer?
Is that why I didn't see any dirigibles?
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Old 05-09-13, 06:12 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Possibly.
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Old 05-09-13, 09:43 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

House votes to avert a worldwide helium shortage

The House overwhelmingly passed legislation on Friday to sell off helium from a federal reserve in Texas while demanding a fair price for it, a seemingly arcane bill that exposed a global shortage of the second-most abundant element in the universe.

The 394-1 vote now sends the bill to the Senate.

SEE RELATED: Rep. Hank Johnson’s sequester jester: ‘Imagine a world without balloons’

It is intended to protect the country, if not the world, from a damaging dearth of helium that could derail key medical and scientific innovations that rely on the prized substance, according to its supporters.

“Despite what many think, helium is not just used for party balloons,” Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said during the debate. “It is essential to our 21st century economy. Without helium we wouldn’t have life saving MRI machines, computer chips, fiber optic cables or other devices used for defense needs.”

The bill would slowly draw down the government’s helium reserve in Texas, through controlled sales and semi-annual auctions. Under current law all distribution is slated to be cut off when the government pays off its debt on the facility in October.

Despite helium’s universal abundance, worldwide demand for the colorless, odorless gas exceeds the private sector’s ability to produce it.

“Why is this a policy issue worthy of consideration of the U.S. Congress? Well, because this invaluable, irreplaceable element is very rare on Earth,” Rep. Rush Holt, New Jersey Democrat, said Friday in floor debate.
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/...lium-shortage/
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Old 05-10-13, 07:12 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

I think a shortage is evidence that the government shouldn't be in this market.
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Old 05-11-13, 06:48 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

If there were a REAL shortage, I suspect
1) Prices would increase until it was attractive for new suppliers to enter the market and existing suppliers expand production
2) Frivolous uses like party balloons would decrease due to the increased prices.

Government intervention can normally be relied on to make a problem monotonically worse.
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Old 05-11-13, 09:54 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by OldDude View Post
If there were a REAL shortage, I suspect
1) Prices would increase until it was attractive for new suppliers to enter the market and existing suppliers expand production
2) Frivolous uses like party balloons would decrease due to the increased prices.
Over the long-term, yes. The question is what we do with the government's helium reserves while we wait for those new suppliers to come on market.

Government intervention can normally be relied on to make a problem monotonically worse.
When all you've got is the hammer of a conservative philosophy, everything looks like a "government makes things worse" nail.

Helium shortage? Yes and no, as demand grows

Helium production is dwindling, leading to higher prices and a balancing of priorities. Balloons or blimps? TSA or MRIs?

Here’s what most of us know about helium: It lets balloons float into the sky even after you said to hold on tight, and it can make our voices sound really high and squeaky.

All of which could make helium the laughingstock of the periodic table of elements — literally, He He He — except that it’s also crucial to some very serious tasks.

It cools magnets that run MRI machines and make semiconductors for cellphones, eases breathing conditions for deep-sea divers, aids welders and is used in some airport scanners. Helium floats the Goodyear blimp, enabling us to see curiously pointless bird’s-eye views of football fields. It inspires some people — although face it, they’ve pretty much all been guys — to tie balloons to lawn chairs and ascend into wild blue flight paths. Plus, Pixar’s “Up” was a heckuva movie.

So word of a helium shortage gives pause. Have we seen the last inflatable gorilla bobbing over a car dealership? The tricky thing is that word, shortage.

There actually is plenty of helium on Earth. In fact, it’s the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen. But it’s a byproduct of natural gas production, so when natural gas prices are at historic lows, as they’ve been, production of both gases declines.

“There are so many factors that enter into the supply,” said Kristin Traynor, who owns the Corner Balloon Shoppe in Minneapolis. She said she’s been able to get enough helium, but has had to pay a bit more. “We had to raise our prices just a little bit, but got no comment from people.”

However, she added that her supplier no longer is accepting new customers.

A supply crunch last fall led to some shortages at balloon shops, for several reasons. Helium plants in Wyoming and Texas were shut down for maintenance that took longer than expected. Plants in Algeria and Qatar slowed production because of low prices. Nature played a role, as well.

“Even the wildfires out west affected plants,” Traynor said. “Up until three years ago when I bought the shop, I never thought twice about helium. Why would you?”

Helium everywhere, but …

The United States once had a huge reserve of helium until, according to an excellent recap in Popular Mechanics, Congress decided in 1996 to privatize the program. It called for the government’s supplies to be sold off by 2015, figuring that new sources of helium would be developed. But, much as Minnesota legislators learned that no one was clamoring for e-pulltabs, so the feds learned that industry wasn’t straining at the bit to produce helium.

So, we’re playing catch-up in the face of dwindling supplies. There’s still helium in reserve, but it’s being rationed until new production plants open in the next few years.

Robert Hanson, a professor of chemistry at St. Olaf College in Northfield, has a knack for explaining to those who aren’t chemistry professors why helium is necessary.

Helium’s special property is that it has a very low boiling point — minus 452 degrees F. — or in Hanson’s world, 4 degrees Kelvin.

“One of the properties of a liquid is that when it boils, it will sit there at that boiling point and never go any higher,” Hanson said. Just as water never gets hotter than 212 degrees, so helium will stay at that temperature, making it an excellent cooling product.

“We have instruments around here with superconducting magnets that have to be kept at 4 degrees Kelvin, so the helium acts as a sort of super-thermos around these coils,” he said, adding that while St. Olaf hasn’t had trouble getting supplies of helium, it has cost more.

Hanson noted efforts to find alternatives to helium — especially Helium-3, which detects neutron radiation, making it valuable to the folks at Homeland Security. But scientists also use Helium-3 to gain “incredible images of what’s in your lungs” when inhaled. “That’s the helium that has really skyrocketed in price.”

With prices rising, Hanson said, more hospitals and research institutes are recycling helium. “It’s a fairly new technology and costs a lot of electricity,” but bolsters the supply.

Science vs. silliness

Scientific and medical uses of helium take priority, as they should, so helium’s more inventive uses may ebb.

Take the University of Nebraska’s 70-year tradition of fans releasing up to 5,000 red balloons when the team first scores. Concerns last fall over helium supplies at local hospitals put the spectacle on hiatus. Once school officials learned the shortage wasn’t dire, they reinstated the release, but with only 2,000 balloons per game.

Or how about the Eternal Ascent Society? The Florida company places cremated remains in a 5-foot-tall, biodegradable balloon. Inflated with helium, the balloon is released “to the heavens,” where it ascends to about 30,000 feet, at which height it freezes and cracks open, scattering the ashes. Its president, Joanie West, said helium prices have doubled, which hasn’t helped her business.

No story about helium can pass without a nod to Lawrence Richard Walters, a k a “Lawnchair Larry.” In 1982, he took to the California sky in a lawn chair to which he’d tied 45 helium-filled weather balloons. He rose about 3 miles, and descended safely, but never really came back to Earth, committing suicide in 1993. Today, cluster ballooning is an extreme sport (www.clusterballoon.org).

Finally, there is helium’s most curious attribute: its ability to make our voices go all Mickey Mouse when we inhale it.

Here’s the science: The vocal cords in our larynx vibrate when air passes between them. Helium is less dense than air, so sound travels faster through it. When you take a few puffs from a helium balloon, then talk, your vocal cords vibrate more quickly, sending the pitch of your voice much higher than normal.

Of course, there’s now an app for this. Record your voice, move your finger over the app’s helium balloon to change its pitch, then upload it to SoundCloud.com.

Just don’t be surprised if someone decides to declare you in short supply.
http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle...1.html?refer=y
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Old 05-11-13, 09:02 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

If helium were commonplace, why would the US laws be important? It's actually rare. Almost a third of the world's supply of it is in one storage field, which is in the US. The US controls 78% of the world's production, with the remainder coming from only four other countries.

Like Saudi princes driving around using their almost-free gasoline, Americans use helium for party balloons. No one else can squander helium like that.
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Old 05-11-13, 09:48 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Other than the unfortunate tragedy of not participating in party balloons and talking like chipmunks, what necessity is helium to other countries.
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Old 05-11-13, 09:59 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by DVD Polizei View Post
Other than the unfortunate tragedy of not participating in party balloons and talking like chipmunks, what necessity is helium to other countries.
Good question. Somebody should post two different articles that talk about the scientific and industrial uses of helium.
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Old 05-11-13, 10:15 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

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Old 05-12-13, 07:00 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by DVD Polizei View Post
Other than the unfortunate tragedy of not participating in party balloons and talking like chipmunks, what necessity is helium to other countries.
From Wikipedia (also mentioned in the article above)

Helium is used in cryogenics (its largest single use, absorbing about a quarter of production), particularly in the cooling of superconducting magnets, with the main commercial application being in MRI scanners. Helium's other industrial uses—as a pressurizing and purge gas, as a protective atmosphere for arc welding and in processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers—account for half of the gas produced.
But since the reactionary talking point is "Oh, noes! No more party balloons! We needz more gubbermint!", please ignore the above.
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Old 05-12-13, 07:04 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

I thought the question had to do with why other countries need to rely on the US government for helium.

And if this is such a vital resource, why is the government selling to people who want to make chipmunk voices?
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Old 05-12-13, 08:19 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

it’s a byproduct of natural gas production, so when natural gas prices are at historic lows, as they’ve been, production of both gases declines.
Except the low prices of natural gas is due to over-production, so shouldn't we have a surplus production of helium as well? Besides, while natural gas production has dipped slightly in the last year or so it's grown 30% in the last 8 years and is still 20-25% above the relatively stable production rate it sat at for 30 years before that.
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Old 05-12-13, 08:47 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by DVD Polizei View Post
Other than the unfortunate tragedy of not participating in party balloons and talking like chipmunks, what necessity is helium to other countries.
From my link in post #9:

Estimated 2008 domestic consumption of 64.9 million cubic meters (2.34 billion cubic feet) was used for cryogenic applications, 28%; for pressurizing and purging, 26%; for welding cover gas, 20%; for controlled atmospheres, 13%; leak detection, 4%; breathing mixtures, 2%; and other, 7%.
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Old 05-12-13, 08:55 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by wmansir View Post
Except the low prices of natural gas is due to over-production, so shouldn't we have a surplus production of helium as well? Besides, while natural gas production has dipped slightly in the last year or so it's grown 30% in the last 8 years and is still 20-25% above the relatively stable production rate it sat at for 30 years before that.
The helium is not "automatic;" it has to be separated. I suspect with Feds "dumping" helium, it is not worth the cost of separating and they just ship it as a trace gas in the natural gas. But, yes, conversion of coal burning plants and increased use of gas turbines to generate electricity (and other industrial conversion) means they are shipping a shitload more natural gas than historically. What was I saying about government intervention in the market?
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Old 05-12-13, 12:41 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

It's easy if you try.
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Old 05-12-13, 03:04 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

I'm sure our 3rd World friends will have to tear down their amazing cryogenically superior superconducting magnets and MRI scanners shortly.

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Old 05-14-13, 10:40 AM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by OldDude View Post
The helium is not "automatic;" it has to be separated. I suspect with Feds "dumping" helium, it is not worth the cost of separating and they just ship it as a trace gas in the natural gas. But, yes, conversion of coal burning plants and increased use of gas turbines to generate electricity (and other industrial conversion) means they are shipping a shitload more natural gas than historically. What was I saying about government intervention in the market?
Not saying you're wrong, but JasonF's article states that the government has been trying to privatize the Helium production since 1996, but no one seems to be interested in doing it.
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Old 05-14-13, 05:33 PM
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Re: Imagine a World Without Balloons

Originally Posted by wmansir View Post
Except the low prices of natural gas is due to over-production, so shouldn't we have a surplus production of helium as well?
If they're collecting it. They might just release it into the atmosphere since it is an inert gas (like that makes a difference to them or something).
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