What goes up must come down, right?   Except when it comes to helium.  Helium is so light that as it rises up it eventually leaves our atmosphere and is gone forever.   There is no such thing as recycling when it comes to Helium – once it’s used and released, it leaves the planet.

Why is this a problem?   Well we’re running out of the stuff!  And it has uses far more important than filling colourfulparty balloons.

Helium on the earth is generated by the radioactive decay of minerals such as Uranium and Thorium.  At its current usage, it is predicted that the world’s supply of helium will last around 200 years.   The difficulty of mining and processing it has led to a global shortage, which has just resulted in the closure of 45 Party City stores in the US.   The party balloon focused stores were unable to guarantee a supply of the precious gas, meaning they’ve had to close their doors.

So, what other uses does Helium have?

Well, because of the low boiling point of Helium, it’s used in science and engineering for extreme cooling – a field known as cryogenics.

The MRI scanners in hospitals use it for cooling, like radiator fluid in a car.  They rely on super-conductors that must be kept at extremely low temperatures to operate.

There was an interesting event at Morris Hospital last year involving an MRI scanner and Helium.   Eric Wooldridge was an IT specialist working for the hospital, when he started receiving multiple calls from staff reporting that their Apple devices had suddenly stopped working?    One, device, two, three – it escalated until 40 different devices were all reported as malfunctioning.   But it was only Apple Devices – Android devices were fine?

Confused, he reached out to the online community of Reddit, where someone suggested it could be related to helium?

After investigating further – he discovered that there had indeed been a leak of Helium during the installation of a new MRI scanner at the hospital.   But why did it only affect the Apple devices?

It turns out it was due to the “internal clock” of the devices malfunctioning.  The clock keeps the device running accurately.   The clocks are made using a technique known as MEMS – Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems and are some of the smallest mechanical devices ever manufactured.

In their quest to make smaller and smaller devices – Apple had started using a clock from SiTime called the SiT512.   It was known as “the world’s smallest, lowest power 32 kHz oscillator”.

Sure enough – in the user guide for the iPhone is the following statement:

“Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium, may damage or impair iPhone functionality. … If your device has been affected and shows signs of not powering on, the device can typically be recovered.  Leave the unit unconnected from a charging cable and let it air out for approximately one week. The helium must fully dissipate from the device, and the device battery should fully discharge in the process. After a week, plug your device directly into a power adapter and let it charge for up to one hour.  Then the device can be turned on again.”

The tiny size of the Helium particles meant they were perfect for getting inside these new clocks and blocking the parts inside from moving.

As per the warning from Apple – after about a week of waiting, the Helium particles dispersed, and the devices started functioning as normal!


Although Helium is scarce on Earth – it’s abundant in space, in fact it is the second most abundant element in the known Universe (after hydrogen)!

Until we develop the technologies to economically mine it in space, it’s going to become increasingly important to carefully manage the reserves we have here on Earth.

Maybe next time you’re getting a bunch of party balloons inflated – ask for air instead of Helium!