As a helium shortage looms, “vacuum balloons” could save physics, medicine, and birthday parties

Helium balloons are a quintessential party favor, a fixture of any birthday, wedding or anniversary party. But few consumers seem to know that helium is a limited resource — and one which physics experiments and medical imaging tools rely on to work. Worse, once a helium balloon pops, that gas is lost forever — it floats upwards and escapes into space, never to be seen on Earth again. 

Now, with the specter of a recent helium shortage still looming, consumers are being asked to ration their helium in order to save science and medicine. The idea that party supply companies and consumers can’t give up helium balloons in order to save these more worthy enterprises might seem a tad selfish; but this is how the market thinks. Yet a few inventors around the country have a brilliant compromise: what if we could make a “balloon” that needed no helium gas

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Alligator inhales helium in the name of science [Video]

This is what an alligator on helium sounds like

Scientists had the reptile inhale the air

as part of an experiment

to understand how they communicate

The outcome?

Something between a grunt and a belch

(SOUNDBITE) (English) TECUMSEH FITCH, CO-AUTHOR OF STUDY “A CHINESE ALLIGATOR IN HELIOX: FORMANT FREQUENCIES IN A CROCODILIAN,” SAYING:

“Our question was whether alligators have vocal tract resonances like human speech. The key is that sound travels faster in helium. This makes the air passages seem shorter, making the resonances higher. So, if you breathe helium and the frequencies shift upward, that shows that they’re resonances. The hard part is getting an alligator to breathe helium.”

Source: Journal of Experimental Biology

Alligator ‘bellows’ are well known

but the function of their vocalizations remains unclear

(SOUNDBITE) (English) STEPHAN REBER, CO-AUTHOR OF STUDY “A CHINESE ALLIGATOR IN HELIOX: FORMANT FREQUENCIES IN A CROCODILIAN”, SAYING:

(REBER INHALES HELIUM) “Our

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