The Public Eye

printed 05/31/2019

Here’s an intriguing question: if you invest in helium, do you get a rising rate of return?

It appears that you would, given that experts in the field have floated the opinion that the world’s supply of helium is vanishing, although I can’t figure out how anyone could know we’re seeing less of something that we can’t see anyway.

But apparently our helium mines are playing out, which people figured out, I guess, when they saw miners pushing, rather than floating, their helium-hauling wheelbarrows to the surface.

It is true, though, that the helium we use — primarily to fill balloons and to talk funny in high school chemistry class (H-e-e-e-yyyy, Mrs. Jones, I sound like Popeye as a soprano…hee-hee-hee-hee) — is actually mined.

As understand it, it’s extracted from gas pockets sealed in rock, suggesting that the only way to find a rich vein of helium is to send a guy underground, and then see if he sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk on his return.

“Eureka! We’ve struck helium! Hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Seriously, though, it really is mined, and is drawn out of natural gas along with nitrogen, and then separated from the nitrogen.

How they do that is beyond my chemistry background, although I suspect they don’t do it by hand.

If they did, we might not have the shortage we are facing today, in that hand-sorting would allow us to cull all the undersized little heliums so we could throw them back for harvesting later.

The thing is, no matter what they say, we are not necessarily running out of this second lightest known element on the periodic table, which is updated, I suspect, periodically.

No, helium is simply escaping from its subterranean confines and into the atmosphere, where it’s just about impossible to recapture before it drifts off into space.

That’s because it comingles with all the other gases, so, were one to drag a plastic grocery bag — an invention that’s much worse than sea-turtle-choking Mylar balloons (more on that in a minute), chances are you’d have a little bit of helium in there.

Not that you’d know for sure. It’s not like you could peek in the bag and sort things out.

“Oh darn! It’s neon.”

“Oh darn! It’s hydrogen and some argon.”

“Oh darn! It’s … whoa! What have those cows been eating?”

Some scientists say we’re not running out of helium because it’s produced by the decay of radioactive material, but that we’re getting short on the helium we can get to, if you’ll pardon the end-of-sentence preposition.

The upside of that, from my perspective, is fewer balloons, Mylar or otherwise, floating out into the ocean, where turtles and other creatures mistake them for your ordinary edible invertebrate.

That doesn’t turn out well and, personally, I’d like to return all the unattended balloons I find in the ocean or wherever to their former owners, and not in a positive way.

You could say, if I returned them in the fashion I have in mind, they might get a real rise out of it.

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