Boffins blast briny boat balloon bid as 'gross waste of helium'

Greedy daredevil set to use about 0.01% of annual space+science consumption

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A British boffinry organisation has issued a stinging rebuke to an American daredevil who plans to cross the Atlantic in a small boat suspended beneath a huge cluster of helium balloons - somewhat in the style of cartoon flying house eldster-quest aerial battle movie Up.

Jonathan Trappe, who has in fact already made a flight in a custom built small house hung from an enormous cluster of multicoloured balloons, aims to take off from the eastern USA and fly to Europe at some point this summer when the winds are right - perhaps within days. As there is a significant chance of coming down in the ocean, for this flight the gondola beneath the balloon cluster will be a small lifeboat in which Trappe can await rescue in the event of ditching. He has already tested this rig on a shorter trial flight (see the vid above).

In order to inflate the huge clump of multicoloured balloons which will lift the boat into the skies, Trappe calculates that he will need to use up some 106,215 cubic feet of helium, which he has purchased with the aid of a successful fundraising campaign.

It's this which has got Dr James Hutchinson, science manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry, pretty mad. Dr Hutchinson has issued an announcement in which Trappe's flight is condemned as a "gross waste of a precious element".

"Helium scarcity is a really serious issue," says the doc in the tinned quotes. "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 ... once it is released into the atmosphere, it just floats off into space and we lose it forever ... [it] is used to support newborn babies with breathing difficulties."

All these things are true, and in recent years there has been something of an outcry against the use of helium for purposes deemed frivolous or inessential. The Register's own special projects bureau and its helium-lifted PARIS and LOHAN space programmes have copped some flak on these grounds, despite being far more economical with the precious gas than schemes such as Trappe's (and indeed a recent - sadly unsuccessful - LOHAN test flight used hydrogen instead).

We're certainly aware of the issues around the global helium supply here at the Reg, having been one of the first media outfits to cover the latest iteration of the story some years ago. But in our analysis, the idea that there's a major problem with selfish balloonists using up precious supplies and so leaving boffins, hospitals and other worthy users bereft is mistaken.

According to the US government scientific report which was largely responsible for modern helium-scarcity concern, very little helium is used as lifting gas at all: the combined amounts for chromatography, heat transfer and lifting gas come to just 7 per cent of total usage. This is borne out by recent US government figures.

Far and away the biggest users of helium are the fields of cryogenics (mainly scientific and medical in nature, covering everything from hospital MRI scanners to the Large Hadron Collider) and liquid-hydrogen-fuelled space rocketry (in which only helium is suitable for purging necessarily supercold systems). Helium-wasting LH2 first stage rockets are primarily used by the scoundrels of NASA, the US Department of Defense (mainly for spy-satellite launches) and the villains of Arianespace with their Ariane V (which among other things sends up European ATV supply podules to the International Space Station).

After boffins, hospitals and LH2 space rockets, the next biggest helium consumers are industrial welders. Together these groups account for a thumping 74 per cent of helium use, as against a measly few per cent for lifting gas (much of which is far from frivolous: weather and scientific balloons are a big part of that). Another genuinely noticeable drain on helium is its use in controlled atmospheres - very often in the industrial production of IT kit such as chips and fibres - at 13 per cent.

Certainly, compared to an ordinary year's medical, scientific and space-rocket use - around 1,500 million cubic feet - Mr Trappe's measly 100,000 feet3 really doesn't seem like a big deal. It would seem to make much more sense for Dr Hutchinson to go and pick on the industrial welding boys, who could perfectly well use argon instead in most cases, and save a comparatively massive 500 million cubic feet (5,000 times what Trappe is using) every year.

Other things more helpful than this kind of killjoy picking on balloonists would include us all using lots more gas instead of coal, oil or whatever (helium is produced as a byproduct of natural gas, so if you want more of one you should produce more of the other) and sorting out the US government helium-reserve policy as the National Academy of Sciences recommended back in 2010. The US government, for historical reasons largely to do with airships and rocketry and their perceived military value, maintains the only large reserve of helium in the world and its policy largely sets the price of the useful gas.

Once the good Dr Hutchinson has sorted all that out, and persuaded the space agencies of the world to switch to kerosene-fuelled rockets, and got the controlled-atmospheres people to be more economical with their helium, it might make some sort of sense to start picking on balloonists.

But not until then. ®

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