Are we really wasting a valuable natural resource at parties?

Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR

This particular inert gas was discovered by an astronomer observing a solar eclipse.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a (tongue in cheek) post about a very inert gas, nitrogen. Silliness aside though, nitrogen is a bit, well boring. I mean, we’ve known about it for nearly 250 years, it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere and it mostly just sits around doing nothing. Even plants, who’ve mastered the spectacular trick of making solid stuff out of sunlight and carbon dioxide, can’t do much with it in its gaseous form (with a few exceptions).

There are much more interesting inert gases. There’s one that wasn’t even discovered on Earth. In fact, it was first spotted on the Sun by Jules Janssen, an astronomer who was taking advantage of a total solar eclipse to study the Sun’s atmosphere. After some more experiments astronomer Norman Lockyer and chemist Edward Frankland named the element after the Greek word for the Sun. It was the first element to be discovered somewhere other than Earth.

Helium_spectrum

Spectral lines of helium

As it turns out, this element is the second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), but one of the least abundant elements on Earth – with a concentration of just 8 parts per billion in the Earth’s crust.

Today, almost all of us meet it as very young children. In balloons.

It’s helium, the second-lightest element in the periodic table and also, perhaps, the ultimate non-renewable resource.

Most of us meet this element as children.

We all learnt what ‘non-renewable’ means in school: it refers to something we’re using up faster than we can ever replace it. Almost anyone can tell you that crude oil is non-renewable. But the thing is, there are alternatives to crude oil. We can use bioethanolbiodiesel and their cousins to power vehicles and provide power. Bioethanol can act as a route to plastics, too. Scientists are also investigating the potential of algae to produce oil substitutes. These alternatives may (at the moment) be relatively expensive, and come with certain disadvantages, but they do exist.

We have no way to make helium. At least, no way to make it in significant quantities (it’s a by-product in nuclear reactors, but there we’re talking tiny amounts). And because it’s so light, when helium escapes into the atmosphere it tends to float, well, up. Ultimately, it escapes from our atmosphere and is lost. Every time you get fed up with that helium balloon that’s started to look a bit sorry for itself and stick a pin in it (perhaps taking a few seconds to do the squeaky-voice trick first) you’re wasting a little bit of a helium.

But so what? We could all live without helium balloons right? If we run out, balloons will just have to be the sinking kind. What’s the problem?

Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines.

Liquid helium is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines.

The problem is that helium has a lot more uses than you might realise. Cool it to -269 oC – just 4 degrees warmer than absolute zero, the lowest termperature there is – and it turns into a liquid, and that liquid is very important stuff. It’s used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners in hospitals, which provide doctors with vital, non-invasive, information about what’s going on inside our bodies. MRI techniques have made diagnoses more accurate and allowed surgery to become far more precise. Nothing else (not even the lightest element, hydrogen) has a lower boiling point than helium, so nothing else is quite as good for this chilly job. Scientists are working hard on developing superconducting magnets that work at warmer temperatures, but this technology is still in its infancy.

There’s another technology called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) which chemists use all the time to help them identify unknown compounds. In fact, MRI was born out of NMR – they’re basically the same technique applied slightly differently – but the medical application was renamed because it was felt that patients wouldn’t understand that the ‘nuclear’ in NMR refers to the nuclei of atoms rather than nuclear energy or radiation, and would balk at the idea of a ‘nuclear’ treatment. Possibly imagining that they’d turn into the Hulk when they went into the scanner, who knows.

Since it works in essentially the same way, NMR also relies on superconducting magnets, also often cooled with liquid helium. Without NMR, whole swathes of chemical research, not to mention drug testing, would run into serious problems overnight.

It doesn’t stop there. Helium is also used in deep-sea diving, in airships, to cool nuclear reactors and certain other types of chemical detectors. NASA also uses massive amounts of helium to help clean out the fuel from its rockets. In summary, it’s important stuff.

But if we can’t make it, where does all this helium come from?

The Earth’s helium supplies have largely originated from the very slow radioactive alpha decay that occurs in rocks, and it’s taken 4.7 billion years to build them up. Helium is often found sitting above reserves of natural oil and gas. In fact that’s exactly how the first helium reserve was discovered: when, in 1903, an oil drilling operation in Kansas produced a gas geyser that wouldn’t burn. It turned out that although helium is relatively rare in the Earth overall, it was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains.

The National Helium Reserve

Show me the way to… The National Helium Reserve

Of course this meant that the United States quickly became the world’s leading supplier of helium. The US started stockpiling the gas during World War I, intending to use it in barrage balloons and later in airships. Helium, unlike the other lighter-than-air gas hydrogen, doesn’t burn. This made things filled with helium safer to handle and, of course, more difficult to shoot down or sabotage.

In 1925 the US government set up the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas. In 1927 the Helium Control Act came into force, which banned the export of the gas. At that point, the USA was the only country producing helium, so they had a complete monopoly (personally, I’d quite like to see a Monopoly board with ‘helium reserves’ on it, wouldn’t you?). And that’s why the Hindenburg, like all German Zeppelins, both famously and tragically had to use hydrogen as its lift gas.

Helium use dropped after World War II, but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to supply liquid helium as a coolant to create hydrogen/oxygen rocket fuel during the Space Race and the Cold War. The US continued to stockpile helium until 1995. At which point, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt. The government of the time pondered this and ended up passing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996, directing the United States Department of the Interior to empty the reserve and sell it off at a fixed rate to pay off the cost.

Right now, anyone can buy cheap helium in supermarkets and high street shops.

Right now, anyone can buy cheap helium in supermarkets and high street shops.

As a result cheap helium flooded the market and its price stayed fairly static for a number of years, although the price for very pure helium has recently risen sharply. This sell-off is why we think of helium as a cheap gas; the sort of thing you can cheerfully fill a balloon with and then throw away. Pop down to a large supermarket or your local high street and you might even be able to buy a canister of helium in the party section relatively cheaply.

The problem is that this situation isn’t going to last. The US reserves have been dramatically depleted, and at one point were expected to run out completely in 2018, although other reserves have since been discovered and other countries have set up extraction plants. It is also possible to extract helium from air by distillation, but it’s expensive – some 10,000 times more expensive. None of these alternatives are expected to really ease the shortage; they’ll just delay it by a few years.

So are helium party balloons truly an irresponsible waste of a precious resource? Well… the helium that’s used in balloons is fairly impure, about 98% helium (mixed with, guess what? Yep, we’re back to nitrogen again!) whereas the helium that’s needed for MRI and the like is what’s called ‘grade A’ helium, which is something like 99.997% pure, depending on whom you ask. Of course you can purify the low-grade helium to get the purer kind but this costs money, which is why grade A helium is so much more expensive.

NABAS logo

The National Balloon Association (‘the voice of the balloon industry’ – you can’t help wondering whether that’s a very high-pitched voice, can you?) argues that balloons only account for 5-7% of helium use and that the helium that goes into balloons – which they prefer to call ‘balloon gas’ because of its impurities – is mainly recycled from from the gas that’s used in the medical industry, or is a by-product of supplying pure, liquid helium, and therefore using it in balloons isn’t really a problem.

Dr Peter Wothers argues that helium balloons should be banned.

Dr Peter Wothers argues that helium balloons should be banned.

On the other hand, more than one eminent physics professor has spoken out on the subject of helium wastage. It costs about 30-50p to fill a helium balloon, but Professor Robert Richardson of Cornell University argued (before his death in 2013) that a helium party balloon should cost £75 to more accurately reflect the true scarcity value of the gas. Dr Peter Wothers of Cambridge University has called for an outright ban of them, saying that in 50 years’ time our children will be amazed that we ever used such a precious material to fill balloons.

Is it time to call for a helium balloon boycott? Perhaps, although it will probably take more than one or two scientifically-minded consumers refusing to buy them before we see any difference. Realistically, the price will sky-rocket in the next few years and, as Peter Wothers suggests, filling balloons with helium will become a ridiculous notion because it’s far too expensive.

Will images like this make no sense in the future?

Will images like this make no sense in the future?

It’s strange to think though, that in maybe 50 years or so the idea of a floating balloon might simply disappear. Just think of all the artwork and drawings that will no longer make sense.

Perhaps this quotation by the late Sir Terry Pratchett is even more relevant than it first appears:

“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”

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Why is chemistry the forgotten science?

I recently had the privilege of talking to radio DJ and author Simon Mayo and he asked me what I thought of his book, Itch.  I said I loved it, and I really do.  (I have yet to read the sequel, Itch Rocks – released at the end of February – but it’s definitely on my list.)  I like Itch for many reasons.  I liked it because the lead character is a teenage boy who’s interested in science and actually finds arty subjects rather difficult, and yet is not a nerdy stereotype.  I like it because there was lots of action and an interesting story, coupled with just the right amount of research.  I liked it because the main female character is strong-willed, principled and absolutely doesn’t get involved in any sort of love triangle (this is not, to paraphrase my favourite film, ‘a kissing book’).  And most of all, I like it because it’s science fiction about chemistry.chemistry

As a chemist, it’s long seemed to me that, when it comes to the media and fiction, it’s the forgotten science. I can think of any number of famous science fiction works that hinge around physics and astronomy.  I can think of things based on biology.  I can even recall one or two that have both, for example Christian Cantrell’s Containment, a novel about a brilliant young scientist living on Venus and working on artificial photosynthesis.  But when it comes to chemistry I’m struggling.  Poisoning turns up in quite a few murder mysteries of course, as does forensics.  I suppose you could argue that some of the medical thrillers with plots that hinge around drugs might count.   Nanotechnology, as in Prey by Michael Crichton, is often thought of as a chemical field in the real world (TM), but thrillers on the subject tend to be less about matter on the atomic scale and more about improbably aggressive tiny robots.

It’s not just fiction.  In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of science programming, particularly on the BBC.  This is fabulous, but the large majority has been focused on physics and biology.  Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage often takes great glee in ignoring, and even ridiculing, chemical disciplines (I still listen to it mind you, in the manner of someone poking at a sore tooth).  The current run of BBC’s Horizon has exactly one episode (The Truth about Taste) that might be considered to have a chemistry focus.  At the end of last year Dara O Briain’s Science Club managed a whole series of six episodes without a single one on a chemical topic.  And so on and so on.  At least the most recent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures redressed the balance a bit, even if they were tucked away on BBC Four.  And as I posted recently, the quiz show Pointless seems to be quite fond of chemistry as a topic, so that’s something.

But why the general lack of chemistry?  Especially when you consider that the A-level is not only desirable but an essential requirement for so many degrees, including medicine, veterinary science, dentistry and pharmacy.  Whereas physics and, perhaps more surprisingly, biology aren’t. Since it’s so important you’d imagine there would be a bit more enthusiasm for the subject.

Is it linked to the background of the presenters?  Dara O Briain, in a previous life, studied mathematics and theoretical physics.  Professor Brian Cox, presenter of the Infinite Monkey Cage, is of course a physicist.  The only regular presenter I can think of with anything resembling a chemistry degree (actually biochemistry) is Liz Bonnin of Bang Goes the Theory.  But surely it isn’t impossible to find a chemist capable of presenting?  Peter Wothers did a cracking job with the Royal Institution lectures for starters.  And surely, surely, there’s room for the fabulously eccentric-looking Martyn Poliakoff somewhere?  (Please go and look at The Periodic Table of Videos if you have five minutes – it’s brilliant.)

But I’m not sure that’s the problem.  I imagine presenters largely talk about what they’re told to talk about.  No, I fear it might be simply the fact that chemistry is a bit, well, hard.

Early in my teaching career an exasperated A-level student complained, “miss, I thought chemistry was all setting fire to things and explosions and stuff, but it’s mostly just numbers and symbols”.  I’m afraid there’s some truth to this, particularly by the time we get to A-level chemistry, although I do like to set fire to things wherever possible (in a controlled manner of course – I’m not an arsonist, I swear).

I often joke with students that chemists use equations because we’re lazy.  For example, take this very simple experiment that you probably do every day if you have a gas cooker – it’s what happens when you set fire to methane:

CH4 + 2O2 –> CO2 + 2H2O

Now let’s write that in words: One molecule of methane, which contains one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms, reacts with exactly two molecules of diatomic oxygen irreversibly to produce exactly one molecule of carbon dioxide, which contains one atom of carbon bonded to two oxygen atoms, and two molecules of water, which contains two atoms of hydrogen bonded to an oxygen atom. 

Phew.  You can see why chemists prefer the equation.  Imagine if we had to write something like that every time we wanted to describe a reaction?  We’d never get anywhere.  Plus, once you understand them, the equations allow you to see similarities between different reactions that could be easily missed otherwise.  The symbols are essential.  But they’re also a bit, well, impenetrable.  A TV show with lots of chemical symbols would be as impossible to understand as one presented in French for many, and rather more difficult to subtitle.

So yes, it can look a bit scary.  But it’s not impossible.  After all you need advanced mathematics to understand physics in depth, but plenty of physics programmes explain their subject matter without even hinting at the dreaded doublet of differentiation and integration.  A good chemist can make the subject accessible with a bit of creativity.

It’s not as if there’s not lots of interesting material (pun entirely intended).  Chemistry is the science behind explosives, cooking, medicines, bubbles, pigments and poisons.  It has a fascinating history, populated with characters such as Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare who also solved the problem of global food security, Glenn Seaborg who discovered ten (ten!) of those elements that loiter at the bottom of the periodic table, Henry Cavendish – discoverer of hydrogen and famously so shy he was unable to talk to women, Antoine Lavoisier, tax collector, traitor and the person who named both oxygen and hydrogen and let’s not forget Carl Wilhelm Scheele, discoverer of some of the most dangerous substances known to man.  There are endless stories that could be told, from the legal case of the Carbolic Smoke Ball to Kekule’s dreams of snakes eating their own tails, to bizarre medical practices such as antimony pills and the mystery of the Bradford Sweets poisoning.

If Simon Mayo can write a series of highly successful novels featuring chemistry aimed at young adults, it must surely be possible to make a few more shows on the topic.  So writers, editors and producters I beseech you not to be scared of chemistry.  Find yourself someone with a bit of knowledge in the area and get on with it.  For whatever chemistry is, it’s far from boring.

Do you know of any chemistry science fiction I’ve missed?  Have you got any favourite chemical stories that you think should be on telly?  Please tell me about them!