Helium is being squandered on childrens’ party balloons when it should be stockpiled for use in life-saving equipment, an academic has claimed.Using the lighter-than-air gas to pump up foil balloons is “hugely frustrating” and “absolutely the wrong use of helium”, said Tom Welton, a professor of sustainable chemistry at Imperial College.
Helium gas possesses a unique combination of properties which give it a range of applications, but it is particularly useful as a coolant.
MRI scanners, which have a wide-ranging application in hospitals and allow doctors to visualise the inner workings of the human body with life-saving potential, are reliant upon the element to function.
However, there is currently a global shortage of helium, which is in finite supply, cannot be synthesised, and must be mined from the earth’s crust.
Mr Welton told Radio 4’s Today programme: “On the whole we’re using more and more and we’re supplying less and less.”
He said that the gas’s application for MRI scans was important.
He said: “The major use is for cooling things, particularly large magnets. The impact that that has on us is MRI scans. the reason we can do MRI is we have very large, cold magnets and the reason we can have those is there is helium cooling them down.”
He added: “You’re not going into an MRI scanner because you’ve got a sore toe. When I had mine they were mapping a tumour. This is important stuff.
“And then when you see that we’re literally just letting them floating them into air and then out into space in those helium balloons, it’s hugely frustrating.
He concluded: “We’re not going to run out of helium tomorrow, but on the 30 to 50 year time scale we will have serious problems of having to shut things down if we don’t manage to do something in the meantime.”
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