Monday, March 07, 2011

Launching the "Up" house a good idea in a helium-deprived world?

America's aviation test bed just became the site of Disney/PIXAR fantasy turned reality when a National Geographic group launched a house, modeled after the one in the movie "Up," into the air tethered to a colorful cluster of weather balloons.


The house was really just a plywood shell of a habitable home, little more than a life-sized doll house sans carpeting and wallpaper. Nevertheless, it took at least 300 helium-filled weather balloons to get it off the ground.

Each brightly-colored weather balloon took an entire large helium tank to be filled. An 8 foot diameter inflated spherical weather balloon, like the kind the NatGeo guys were using, has a volume of 268 cubic feet. According to this Southern California helium supplier, a large helium tank holds about 244 cubic feet. That's a lot of helium. That means to fill 300 weather balloons, it took at least 300 large tanks of helium. In the video up top, while one of the guys from the show is being interviewed, you can see expended helium tank carcasses scattered on the desert behind him.

It makes me wonder: With today's shortage of helium, was this stunt really necessary? You tell me. I'm torn. On one hand, it was very cool. On the other hand, that's a lot of helium. Seventy-three thousand cubic feet of helium -- enough helium to fill up over 300,000 9-inch party balloons!

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe. However, because it is also the second lightest element in the Universe, much of it has evaporated and escaped from our planet. The gas is formed as a byproduct of nuclear fusion of hydrogen in larger stars. It is also created slowly by the radioactive decay of some rocks on Earth. Most of it, however, was created during the Big Bang.

Helium is used in cryogenics, the study of materials at very cold temperatures, and to cool superconducting magnets, notably in MRI scanners, among many other Earthly uses. Though I can't pin down a numerical estimate of how much helium is left on Earth, estimates are that we will run out sometime in the next few decades. The Silver Lining? We may one day be able to mine helium from our two helium-rich neighbors: Uranus and Neptune.

Back in the California high desert, the "Up"-inspired house flew for about and hour and rose to an altitude of 10,000 ft. It's unclear from the video whether or not there was anyone in the house while it was flying. According to stories on the web (here's one, for example), the stunt was done to promote an upcoming new show on the National Geographic Channel called, "How Hard Can it Be?" Sounds pretty awesome, but I can't find anything about the show itself anywhere on the 'net. I guess we'll have to keep our eyes and ears tuned in for more and to see for ourselves whether or not the stunt was worth it.

6 comments:

  1. There were two pilots on board; if you look at the Nat Geo press photos, you can see one in the window waving at launch, well above the ground!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous -- Thanks! Could you post a link to the photos you're talking about so our other readers can see them?

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi folks,
    There is no shortage of Helium, as it is found in the vast reserves of natural gas in commercialy viable quantities in Siberia, Qatar, Algeria, Poland, Australia and the US. The US also has the Amarillo strategic reserve, which is used by the military and government. Unfortunately there has been some ramping of gas exploration stocks in Australia and the US, saying it will run out soon and the price for a toy balloon fill should be a hundred dollars etc. The Russians then short sold the same stocks and then pointed out just how much Helium could be obtained from the Siberian gas fields.
    Regards JB (Gasbags comedy site with a Helium info. page:
    www.hybridblimp.net )

    ReplyDelete
  4. It’s not wasting. It’s what you call experimenting.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You can see the pilot, in the window, waving at launch-- with one sandbag in his hand, ready to throw over as ballast, if needed:

    http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/upinspired-floating-house-14

    ReplyDelete
  6. Re: "James Bond"

    I believe the issue at hand is less that we're running out of helium (we're surely not, as you point out), but rather that helium, as a byproduct of natural gas, is a non-renewable source.

    On the other hand, I think that this stunt was AWESOME.

    ReplyDelete