Balloon gas vs helium
How much do you know about helium? And balloon gas? Spoiler alert: they're not the same!
Helium was first discovered in the sun’s corona in 1868. The name is derived from ‘Helios’ which means ‘sun’ in Greek and has a boiling point of -268.9 Celsius.
It is a colourless, odourless and completely nonreactive.
It’s the only gas lighter than air except for hydrogen – which is highly flammable.
Balloon gas is a mixture of mainly helium and some atmospheric gases. It is a by product of the helium gas industry and cannot be used in science and academic applications.
Want to learn more? Read on below...
Where is balloon gas obtained from?
Balloon gas is predominantly a by-product from other filling applications. It is obtained in the same way as for other helium applications: helium is extracted from mining natural gas fields or CO2 fields and liquefied before being shipped into the market. Helium is then sold in either liquid form (in containers or dewars) or gaseous form (in tube trailers, bundles or cylinders) and in a variety of purities to meet supply needs.
Gaseous helium used in balloons is the product with the lowest concentration of helium of all the pure helium products.
For some gas manufacturers - balloon gas is simply a by-product from bottling helium and other industrial appliances that would have otherwise been wasted. Instead of losing the gas to atmosphere, it is captured and sold as balloon gas instead of helium due to it's high level of impurity.
Natural gas processing field
Is it a waste to use it on balloons?
The simple answer is no – it is not a waste. As cylinders of pure helium are filled, the escaped gas mixes with air and is captured and compressed into cylinders as balloon gas. Some manufacturers capture this helium when filling MRI scanners.
Manufacturers have stated that this wasted helium is considered a ‘recycled product’ as it would have been lost to the environment had it not been captured and re-purposed. If the balloon market demand declined, manufacturers would have to re-evaluate other markets and consider the possibilities of re-liquefying it. Re-liquefying is currently considered uneconomical from the locations of where the filling application take place.
Let’s not forget that the balloon market is only one application and makes up less than 10% of the worldwide helium market, there are several other applications that also use helium.
Balloon gas cylinder
Can we recycle it instead of using it on balloons?
Since the helium shortage ended towards the end of 2013 there is currently no more allocation between helium applications, i.e. no competition between which applications are to be supplied with helium. However, recycling helium is possible if necessary.
Some helium clients re-liquefy their helium onsite to decrease dependency on external purchases. For fixed plant this works well as a process and becomes economically viable over a number of years.
Most manufacturers could potentially recycle helium but the logistics of doing this would be too difficult and uneconomical. The expense of capturing and purifying the escaped helium far outweighs what it can be sold for. In order to capture and purify the gas, the cost of transporting the by-product back to their plant, cost of re-compression and/or re-liquefying against the original costs of production currently make this option nonviable.
What % of helium balloon gas is actually helium and what else is in it?
Global purity for balloon gas is around 95% helium. ALbee Fly, Helibal, Helial, Carbalon, Ballongas, Ballonal, Helihi are just some of brand names for balloon gas. Other main components of balloon gas are nitrogen and oxygen.
Some manufacturers have advised us that their balloon gas has a mixture of helium, O2, nitrogen & traces of air (atmosphere gases not intentionally added). Margin in purity for balloon helium can be quite large but a minimum of 92% is required for the balloon to float. For some bottling manufacturers – purity is measured at bottling point and a gas certificate is sent with the cylinders if a special mixture is requested.
Why can’t we use it in science and academia applications instead?
Depending on the application, the required quality and purity of helium varies. For some scientific applications the required helium purity can be 99.9999% and nearly reach 100% purity for liquid application (at -269°C) – balloon gas is far short of this. Again, as the helium shortage ended in 2013 no priority was set for where helium should be used.
There is nothing stopping science and academic institutions using the mixed gas except the premium cost of re-processing the impure helium to pure helium as high purity is required in science and academia.
Liquid helium dewar
How much helium do we have and are we running out?
This is difficult to predict as it depends on supply and demand – but no shortage is anticipated.
One manufacturer has advised us they do not foresee any end to helium availability. As an example, a major new helium gas field has been discovered in Tanzania in June 2016. Its estimated helium resources may be able to supply 8 years of the current worldwide annual helium consumption. This has been discovered using a new detection technique which will focus on finding new helium reserves instead of obtaining helium from mining natural gas.
Another manufacturer as advised us that to estimate the amount of helium reserves is difficult. Some of this is dependent on finding new reserves such as recently found in Russia and Qatar (in 2014), as well as how we use helium i.e. supply and demand. It has been suggested that one particular project of helium discovery will produce the largest reserves of helium that will be seen.
In addition to this, some applications where helium was being used are being developed to use alternative gases such as
helium free MRI scanners and air bags where Argon can be used as a substitution.
The scare of previous shortages have resulted from a disruption to the supply chain despite reserves being available.