RSC condemns helium balloon-powered Atlantic crossing

July 5, 2013, Royal Society of Chemistry

The Royal Society of Chemistry is troubled by news today of the gross waste of a precious element, in a world record attempt to fly across the Atlantic using helium balloons.

Balloonist Jonathan Trappe will begin his attempt to float from the United States to Paris in a lifeboat suspended from 370 giant cluster balloons, containing enough helium to inflate 400,000 party balloons, in just a few days, according to today's Metro newspaper.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but here on earth, it's becoming increasingly rare. 

The Royal Society of Chemistry's science manager, Dr James Hutchinson, said: "While Mr Trappe is attempting a remarkable feat, when you know how precious helium is, it seems crazy to use such a large volume of it in such a frivolous way."

"Helium scarcity is a really serious issue. It is used in a wide range of applications that affect our daily lives, including many medical applications. It is also critical for operating a lot of equipment used in scientific research, so we really cannot afford to waste it. 

"Many people guess that we extract helium from the air, but in fact we mostly obtain it as a by-product of and our supply is finite. Helium is lighter than air, so once it is released into the atmosphere, it just floats off into space and we lose it forever."

Dr Hutchinson continued: "Helium is lighter than air and chemically inert so it can be combined with oxygen to produce a mixture that can aid breathing. This mixture is called heliox and is used to support newborn babies with breathing difficulties. It also used by deep sea divers to help them breathe underwater.

"Liquid helium has the lowest boiling point of any substance so it is also used for a wide variety of cooling purposes, including providing the low temperatures needed to operate the in MRI scanners, and cooling nuclear reactors."

In the face of its decreasing supply, a number of scientists have warned against the non-essential use of helium in things such as party balloons. In the run-up to the 2012 Christmas Lectures, which were supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry, chemist and Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers, called for a ban on .

Dr Hutchinson added: "The issues around scarcity of important natural resources, such as helium, are a top priority for the Royal Society of Chemistry and we continue to work closely with scientists and governments to address these challenges head-on."

Explore further: Probing Question: Are we running out of helium?

Related Stories

Probing Question: Are we running out of helium?

April 26, 2013

Party planners, take note: the atmosphere may become a little deflated at gala events in the future. Some scientists are sounding the alarm about the wastefulness of using helium—a rare, non-renewable gas—to fill party ...

The world is running out of helium: Nobel prize winner

August 24, 2010

( -- A renowned expert on helium says we are wasting our supplies of the inert gas helium and will run out within 25 to 30 years, which will have disastrous consequences for hospitals and industry.

Helium shortage is on, and prices are up, up and away

September 3, 2012

A helium shortage is nothing to take lightly. Nothing funny, either, in how some are talking about their livelihoods, whether it's keeping those party balloons flying or those MRI magnets cooled.

Claim of supersolid helium disproved by original researcher

October 15, 2012

(—Moses Chan, co-author of a paper published in 2004 describing work that resulted in claims of the discovery of supersolid helium, has now co-authored another paper, published in Physical Review Letters, describing ...

Recommended for you

Spore formation model could advance medicine

February 21, 2018

Michigan State University scientists have produced experimental and modeling results that shed light on how a particular type of enzyme functions during spore formation, potentially advancing human health and disease research.

Chemical waves guide to catalysts of the future

February 20, 2018

Spectacular electron microscope images at TU Wien lead to important findings: Chemical reactions can produce spiral-like multi-frequency waves and thus provide local information about catalysts.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2013
In the late 1960s I was a weather observer in the Air Force. We used helium for weather balloons. The US government required oil well producers to save it. Then, the law was repealed because there was a 50 year supply already on hand. Additionally, weather balloons switched to hydrogen, to make that 50 year supply last longer. Well, 50 years have gone by and ...
5 / 5 (2) Jul 05, 2013
There is really no good reason why these balloonists cannot use hydrogen instead. Sure, it's flammable, but airships were very successfully operated for many years without incident until the Hindenberg. And it now seems that the major contributing factor to that disaster was the almost equally inflammable nature of the materials used for that airship's construction. The reaction down the years to the Hindenberg disaster has been out of all proportion. If we reacted the same way to burning fuels in auto or airplane accidents, we'd still be jumping on horses! And let's not even get started on the risks in putting men and satellites on top of really inflammable rockets into space. There have been some infamous accidents there, but that hasn't stopped the game, so why this excessive fear about hydrogen

Of course there are risks, but I believe them to be manageable and acceptable.

Time, and knowledge about fabric construction, has moved on a great deal. So should these balloonists
3 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2013
Agreed. The 'Hindenberg Syndrome' has a lot to answer for!
I have been handling Hydrogen at high pressures in the gas industry for many years, and the fact that is has a very high dispersion rate especially in the open air, makes it far safer than people think.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2013
Helium Can't be that scarce because Congressional Republicans have voted to sell of America's helium reserves.

Besides, if they need more Helium they can just make a long straw and suck it out of the sun.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 07, 2013
If someone could get cold fusion working, there'd be more than enough helium to go around.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2013
The discredited 'Cold Fusion' scenario, *IF* it worked it would produce minute amounts of Helium!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.