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Where helium for balloons comes from, where cows get their calcium

Helium comes from air, calcium comes from hay

Cows in Amarillo are walking around on the biggest clump of helium in the world.
  • Cows in Amarillo are walking around on the biggest clump of helium in the world.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Okay, Matt: Where do they get the helium from that they compress for making helium balloons? I took some general chemistry and seem to remember that helium is a noble gas and therefore very unreactive, and I can’t think of any reactions that it could be the product of Do they somehow filter it out of the air? — John McLaughlin, UCSD Dept, of Reproductive Medicine

Dear Matt: Where do cows get all that calcium from if all they eat is grass and hay? Also, where does MSG (monosodium glutamate) come from? — Inquiring Minds in the Sefton Lab

So, okay, you’re saying to yourself, “Helium and cows. Cows and helium. What gives? Has Matt’s head finally exploded or what?” No such luck, my friends. The cow-gas connection is Amarillo, Texas. Cows in Amarillo are walking around on the biggest clump of helium in the world. When the wind’s just right, they’re even known to levitate and drift over fences. And this has nothing to do with that cow-farts-destroy-the-ozone-layer scare, which, turns out, was just a vegan disinformation plot picked up by the tabloids. But don’t worry. The U.S. government controls all that Texas helium, so we have nothing to worry about. Hey, wait a minute. The government? That’s us. Anyway, since about 1920, with a brief break during the ’70s, we’ve been maintaining a “strategic” helium stockpile. We’ve scrimped and saved and clipped coupons and are now up to 32 billion cubic feet of it in tanks under Amarillo.

Every time we inhale, we suck up about 0.001 percent of helium, so trying to pick helium atoms out of the atmosphere would be pretty tedious. Lucky for us, helium is a byproduct of radioactive decay, so the earth cranks it out like crazy and it ends up in underground pockets of natural gas. Companies that care to extract and market the helium will either suck up the natural gas in charcoal filters, leaving the helium behind, or will compress the heck out of the mixture until everything but the helium is liquefied. But a lot of helium is never extracted and just burns up when we light a stove or turn on our home furnace.

If you have any sense at all, you’re now asking yourself, “What the hell do we want with a big gas bag in Amarillo?” Well, it’s not a hedge against a boom in the party-balloon market. Seventy-five years ago it was stockpiled for the military for its hot new dirigible technology. Now it’s used in the semiconductor biz, but mostly we have it because government programs don’t go away in a hurry.

As for “all that calcium” in cow’s milk — well, why just worry about calcium? How does all the butter get in there? The chlorine, bicarbonate, potassium, magnesium? The proteins? And how does the average new mother turn a bacon cheeseburger into milk? How do chickens turn seeds into calcium-rich eggshells? And hey, why is it that cows eat green stuff, but milk is white? Simple biochemistry. Milk is about 85 percent water, and dissolved in it are lots of mineral salts, one of which is calcium, which exists in hay and is created at the molecular level by the cow herself. They may not look busy, standing around chewing and mooing. But on the inside, things are humming.

Almost forgot. MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid. It was originally extracted from kelp, then wheat, but now is produced commercially from bacteria poop. They feed the bacteria a high-nitrogen chow, and they synthesize and excrete glutamic acid. After some fermentation and processing, you get the tasteless white crystals that are MSG. It also exists naturally in virtually every protein and in large quantities in tomatoes, potatoes, soybeans, mushrooms, and many yeast products. A mushroom pizza is an MSG disaster.

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