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How The Helium Shortage Impacts Football Season

Friday, September 7th, 2012

The past week has been a welcome return to football season for fans everywhere. And that means a return to carbon-dioxide filled beverages, welded seats and a few helium-filled balloons. But for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the reunion with helium balloons would be its last for a while.

Going back to the 1940s, Huskers fans have upheld a tradition of releasing red, helium-filled balloons after the team’s first touchdown of every home game. In light of the current helium shortage, this 70-year-old tradition is in jeopardy. Last Saturday, balloons were filled for the school’s season opener for one final balloon release. But instead of the usual 5,000 balloons, only about half of that was filled. The balloon release is officially “on hiatus” for an indefinite period, leaving the school in search of a new tradition. (Got any gas-filled suggestions?)

It seems that helium and football go hand-in-hand at the University of Nebraska. I came across a video on the university’s YouTube channel in a series called “Football Physics.” The video features Professor Tim Gay, who brings science to the football field to see whether a helium-filled football could give a kicker any advantage. Want to find out the answer? The video is below.

The Discovery Channel’s MythBusters did a more comprehensive test of the same question in one episode, and actually predicted that the lighter, helium-filled ball would travel farther. To their surprise, they found that a heavier ball has greater force, and actually flies through the air farther. If footballs were light enough to float, we might have a different outcome.

It should be noted that UNL’s video shows the unsafe practice of inhaling helium—and, as GAWDA distributors can tell you, the dangers associated with helium are anything but a myth.

Even with the Huskers’ storied tradition coming to an end, there are many storylines in the world of football and gases and welding that will live on. What happens when a gases and welding distributor gets together with a football superstar? Read the conversation between South Jersey Welding Supply’s Bob Thornton and Super Bowl champ Joe Theismann here.

Welding & Gases At The 2012 London Olympics

Friday, July 27th, 2012

As the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics gets underway this evening, the world of gases and welding will be front and center in two of the games’ most anticipated and iconic elements—the Olympic torch and the Olympic Stadium. Hydrogen vehicles also play an interesting role in the 2012 London Olympics.

London's Olympic Stadium

London's Olympic Stadium is 75% lighter than previous Olympic venues, thanks to the use of lightweight steel.

The Olympic Stadium
In years past, Olympic venues have been designed as monuments, something to remember for years to come. Take the Beijing National Stadium built for the 2008 Olympic games (the Bird’s Nest, as it has come to be known). The stadium with its whimsical steel frame—and 45,000 tons of steel in all—will no doubt be remembered. But the dig on Olympic venues is that they often serve little function after the games.

With this in mind, London’s Olympic Stadium looks to make a very different kind of statement than those of years past. During the 2012 games, the Olympic Stadium will seat 80,000 people. 55,000 of those seats are temporary. After the games, the stadium will be partly disassembled to create a smaller 25,000 seat venue. In fact, the builders didn’t even bother to cover the bolts used to hold the steel together, knowing that they will eventually be removed.

One of the keys to creating a stadium that could be transformed was the use of lightweight steel. In total, the Olympic Stadium contains just over 11,000 tons of steel (a far cry from Beijing’s 45,000), making it the lightest stadium in the world at this size. Also of note is the fact that the top ring of the stadium was built using 2,500 tons of reclaimed surplus gas pipes from the North Sea Gas Pipeline project.

The Olympic Orbit

The ArcellorMittal Orbit includes steel from five contintents.

As with any stadium construction, the Olympic Stadium relied on skilled welders to join the lightweight steel. One welder left his mark—and a good-luck charm for his home country—by welding a series of horseshoes that resemble the Olympic rings into the stadium’s roof. You can read more about how Construction Manager Steve Burley welded his creation 120 feet up on a pillar here.

Elsewhere in the Olympic Park, the Aquatics Centre (where swimming events will be held) stands out with its 525-foot-long wave-shaped steel roof, which rests on just three supports.

One of the most distinctive buildings at the 2012 London Olympics is the Orbit (officially the ArcellorMittal Orbit), an observation deck that doubles as a piece of public art. ArcellorMittal donated all of the steel for the project, sourcing the supplies from five different continents (including North America) in the global spirit of the Olympics. Just over 2,400 tons of steel were used in its construction, including 60% recycled steel.

The Olympic Torch
Arguably the most iconic symbol of the Olympics, this year’s Olympic torch is made from a special aluminum alloy originally developed for the aerospace and automotive industries. The alloy’s characteristics make it heat resistant, lightweight and strong.

The torch has a unique triangular design incorporating a complex pattern of 8,000 holes (representing the 8,000 people who carried the torch on its journey from Olympia, Greece, to London). Along with their symbolic representation, the holes are functional. One of the torch’s designers, Jay Osgerby , says, “The wind moves through the torch, the perforations allow the metal to cool, and so the torch never gets hot.”

The Olympic Torch

The Olympic torch relies on laser welding and cutting processes.

In creating the torch, the holes are cut from the alloy using a numerically controlled 2D laser cutting machine. After this, the manufacturer uses 3D laser technology to weld the parts of the torch together in a smooth, seamless joint and cut additional holes in the welded areas.

As for the actual flame, the 2012 torch uses a gas mix including two-thirds propane and one-third butane. Each of the 8,000 torches used this year (yes, they use a separate torch for every runner) has enough gas to burn for 13-14 minutes, although it only takes 3-6 minutes for each carrier to travel the 300 meters (328 yards) of each leg.

Scroll down to view a video of the torch’s construction.

Hydrogen Vehicles at the Olympics
Recently it was announced that five hydrogen taxis will be used to transport VIPs in London throughout the Olympics. The fleet will refuel at London’s Heathrow airport at a new Air Products fueling station.

Meanwhile, London’s fuel cell buses, which have been running since 2009 (and recently hit the milestone of 100,000 miles driven), are being decommissioned during the Olympic due to security concerns. The Air Products hydrogen fueling station in East London used to operate the buses was originally approved in 2009 on the condition that hydrogen fuel not be stored on-site between July and mid-September of 2012.

Notably, a fleet of 20 hydrogen buses was used successfully and without incident at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Canada.

With or without hydrogen buses, the gases and welding industry will be well represented at the 2012 games. As promised, here is a video showing the manufacture of the Olympic Torch.

Photos: London 2012, ArcelorMittal

What’s So Green About Gases And Welding [Video]

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Recently in LinkedIn Answers, I came across an interesting question: Is it always best to buy, sell and promote environmentally friendly products? During a conversation last week, I asked a distributor what he thought about this question. He expressed that being “green” was important to him in his company (recycling, etc), but that it was not something customers had ever expressed as a real priority.

As a business, it makes the most sense to sell what the customer wants, so the answer to the original question is that it’s not appropriate for everyone. But while some often think of the gases and welding industry as very “industrial,” in reality it’s a very green industry, and it’s become so without really trying. Take hydrogen fuel for example. Or wind turbines, which take a massive amount of welding. Even a core group of suppliers is focused on improving air quality through fume removal systems.

But long before the push for environmentally friendly energy sources, distributors were helping their customers recycle. Cutting equipment—be it oxyfuel cutting, plasma cutting, propylene, chemtane, you name it—is another important group of product supplied by GAWDA distributors. These powerful tools help fabricators, artists and other metalworkers break down scrap metal and recycle it for new purposes.

Here’s a video of an artist cleaning up scrap metal sitting at the bottom of a body of water and turning it into a great piece of art. It doesn’t get much greener than this:

Dealing With Gas Supply On The Fourth Of July

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

A lot of propane will be used this Fourth of July, but it’s also a day when many independent distributors may be closed for business. So where do customers go for their gas needs? This was one of the issues raised in a recent On The Edge article called “Putting The Honor System To The Test.” A propane dealer expressed his frustration at losing customers to Big Box stores on the weekends and on holidays. Especially when holidays are some of the biggest grilling times, you can see why this would be an issue for some distributors.

The propane dealer’s response was to find a way to serve his customers by leaving out partial tanks. I raised the issue with several GAWDA members, and most agreed that there was a better solution than leaving tanks by the back door.

Multiple GAWDA members have found a solution in setting up their own consignment cages for propane at convenience stores, even at some of the Big Box type stores themselves. This not only keeps customers honest, it keeps the tanks under lock and key for safety. So if you’re looking for propane this 4th of July, you may still be able to buy it from your favorite GAWDA member.

Welding & Gases Today will have the full story next week, including GAWDA members’ opinions of and alternatives to the honor system.

The Intrepid - Helium Filled Military BalloonAs we celebrate the Fourth of July, this is also a great time to look at an amazing story involving helium. When the Genesee Country Village & Museum set out to recreate a Civil War military balloon, it never imagined that a helium shortage would deflate its plans. With the global helium shortage, the museum had trouble securing a supply of the gas and put out a call for help. Macy’s responded by donating 50,000 cubic feet of helium to get the Intrepid off the ground.

The fourth of July will be the inaugural launch of this helium-filled piece of history at the Rochester, NY, museum. Visitors will be able to ride up 300 feet in the air in the tethered balloon to recreate the experience of Union soldiers observing enemy troops (with helium in place of the more volatile hydrogen used by the soldiers). It just goes to show that gas played an important role in the military even in the 19th century.

Here’s wishing everyone a safe and happy Fourth of July!

A Summer Of Gases And Welding

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Now that it’s officially summer, it’s a perfect time for a gases and welding road trip. It seems you can’t go anywhere without coming across the marvels of the industry, but there are some places that truly showcase the wonders of gases and welding.

One incredible wonder of welding is the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which opened in 2007. The horseshoe-shaped steel and glass walkway rises 4,000 feet above the Colorado River. Thanks to incredible engineering and the power of welding, the Skywalk can support an estimated 71 million lbs., and can withstand earthquakes up to 8.0 in magnitude.

How was such an amazing feat achieved? The Skywalk’s frame is made welded carbon steel box girders that are 2 inches thick, 6 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. 40-foot sections were shipped in and sub-arc welded on site. Ultrasonic testing was used to ensure the quality of the welds, and revealed a weld reject rate at less than 2 percent for the entire project.

Lincoln Electric has more details about the welding processes used in the construction of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, which in total was built with more than 1 million pounds of steel. The man-made wonder was also featured in Welding & Gases Today, along with other amazing destinations like the new Yankee Stadium and Cedar Point. Start planning your summer vacation with “The Great Welding And Gases Road Trip.”

What destinations would you put on your gases and welding road trip? Share in the comments or on Twitter @GasWeldEdge.

Argon, Automation And The National Anthem

Friday, March 30th, 2012
The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner

The Spring Management Conference is less than a month away now. If you’re heading to Baltimore for the SMC, you may also want to take time to visit the Maryland Historical Society Museum, where you will find the Star-Spangled Banner in its original form. From the MDHS website:

Currently on view is The Star-Spangled Banner. A Patriotic Song. Published by Carr Music Store in Baltimore in 1814, it is one of the few remaining copies of the 1st edition of the poem set to music we know as our national anthem.

Not only is the Star-Spangled Banner an important part of our country’s history, but the exhibit itself is an illustration of the wonders of the gas industry. That’s because the nearly 200-year-old manuscript is preserved with high purity argon gas.

Of course, the Star-Spangled Banner isn’t the only thing preserved with argon. The inert gas is commonly used in wine preservation, and is even used for preserving other countries’ precious artifacts. Ever wonder what goes into preserving a document in argon? In the video below, the National Archives shows how it keeps a 715-year-old document intact. The precise engineering that goes into preserving the Magna Carta is incredible.

The video also offers a look into the automated machining equipment used to make the case itself. Typically, when it comes to automation, I think of manufacturers that are looking to increase productivity on large runs. This video, however, shows a very different need for automation—precision. Document encasement, far from being a mass production, allows very little room for error. Now that’s a niche market.

St. Patrick’s Day Is A Gas

Friday, March 16th, 2012

St. Patrick’s Day is a good day for the gas industry. Across the world, massive amounts of CO2 and nitrogen will be consumed as thirsty citizens celebrate the day. According to National Geographic, more than 4.2 billion pints of beer will be consumed on this single day—that’s about 1 percent of the annual consumption total.

Just how much gas will be consumed? Different beers have different amounts of CO2. Brewers speak in terms of volumes of CO2, where 1 volume of CO2 is the equivalent of 1 gallon of CO2 at 1 atmosphere in 1 gallon of fluid. The typical beer has anywhere from 1½ volumes CO2 for a typical British-style ale to up to 5 volumes for a wheat beer. So if we take 4.2 billion pints of beer on St. Patrick’s Day…that’s about 528 million gallons of beer—considering an average of 2.5 volumes of CO2…that’s more than 1.3 billion volumes of CO2—in other words, a lot of gas. (If you are interested in converting this to other measurements, the previous link contains some useful calculations).

Of course, not all of the gas consumed is carbon dioxide. Nitrogen makes up a large part of the gas mix used in beers like Guinness. (Something tells me that nitrogen use is somewhat higher than normal on St. Patrick’s Day.) How many pints of Guinness will be consumed on St. Patrick’s Day? See for yourself:

(Source: guysgab.com)

13 million pints, enough to fill the 60% of the Empire State Building. That’s a lot of nitrogen. Believe it or not, Guinness has a connection to the Gases and Welding Distributors Association. As I wrote about last St. Patrick’s Day, GAWDA member McDantim was responsible for developing a custom gas blender for Guinness & Co. back in 1986.

When it comes to beverage gases, do you see an increase in sales around St. Patrick’s Day? How do you prepare for the addtional demand?

Helium Shortage Takes Over Valentine’s Day

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for balloon retailers, and the ongoing helium shortage has been a cloud over many such businesses. I’ve been reading local news reports from around the country, all discussing the fact that helium-filled balloons are harder to come by and a little pricier this Valentine’s Day.

Welding & Gases Today has been following the helium shortage for the last few months, and with balloon retailers in the news, it seemed like a good time to check in with distributors. How is the shortage affecting distributors and their customers? The response is mixed.

Scott Myran, operations manager at Mississippi Welders Supply (Winona, MN), noted the helium supply strain in a conversation with me this past November, and told me this week that the situation has not changed in the last several months. “Helium is going to be an ongoing issue on into the future,” he says. “There’s a finite quantity. Eventually, we will get to the point where the U.S. is no longer the largest exporter in the world, and we’ll have to start importing. Helium’s probably going to become harder to procure, and it’s no doubt going to get more expensive.”

Despite the tight supply, MWS has been able to keep up with customer demand. Myran says the company created a backup plan on how it would prioritize if forced to put customers on allocation. “Medical needs would have been priority number one,” he says. Thankfully, the company has not had to call on this plan.

However, it appears some distributors have had to follow this route. End-user Donna Ryan, owner of Donna’s Helium and Balloon told Amarillo’s Pronews 7, “The way they are allocating the helium now, hospitals are on the top of the list, which is exactly where they belong. Balloon helium is at the bottom.”

While MWS has not had any difficulty meeting customers’ supply needs, Myran says costs have gone up. “Whether it’s helium or gas for your car, customers make that individual decision as they need to. Sometimes when we’re aware that something is in tight supply, price is not such an issue.”

In Wichita, KS, Lampton Welding Supply has not felt the pressure of tightening supply. “We haven’t had any strain. We’ve been able to fill 100 percent of our needs,” says vice president Doug Lampton. Lampton Welding Supply prepared for the helium shortage by purchasing additional helium cylinders, and it seems to be paying off. Lampton says the company has added quite a bit of business over the last few months due to other distributors’ inability to secure a steady supply of helium.

Similar to MWS, Glenn Bliss, president of General Distributing Company in Great Falls, MT, told KFBB “With our existing customers, we don’t foresee any issues whatsoever, but it’s a situation where we are not able to go out and proactively look for new helium business right now.” General Distributing invested in a tanker last year, allowing the company to pick up helium in bulk and bring it back to Montana. Bliss says the tanker allows the company to absorb some of the rising costs of helium.

How is your business handling the helium supply strain?

Of course, with the cost of helium going up, you can’t go wrong with a bouquet of welded flowers, like the ones created by a group of high school students in Washington for Valentine’s Day.

You Can’t Have A Super Bowl Without Gases And Welding

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Welding makes it possible for fans to stay warm in Indy's network of skywalk-connected buildings.

This weekend, the country’s attention turns to football. And with it, it’s a perfect time to recognize the gases and welding hard at work behind the scenes of the Super Bowl. As the title says, you can’t have a Super Bowl without gases and welding. Even if you could, why would you want to?

The game is being hosted in Indianapolis this year, and in February, that means it’s going to be cold. Thanks to propane supplied by Ferrell Gas Company, local fans will be able to keep warm. Tents are going up all over downtown Indy, and the Office of Code Enforcement is requiring that they be heated for safety reasons. The Super Bowl committee uses propane because it burns clean, with low odor and emissions, and it’s not affected if the power goes out.

Fans staying in any of the 4,700-plus hotel rooms connected to the Indiana Convention Center, on the other hand, can thank their warmth to welding. That’s because those fans will never have to walk outside to get to the game. The ICC is connected to Lucas Oil Stadium by climate-controlled pedestrian walkways (pictured at right). Judging from the pictures, strong welds are definitely key to supporting these steel-and-glass skywalks.

Within Lucas Oil Stadium, where the game will be played, there are 16,000 tons of steel. The stadium has a first-of-its kind SuperFrame Structural System with a unique two-panel moving roof design. The roof itself is supported on five rails. Also, the stadium, which normally has 63,000, has boosted its capacity to 70,000 for Super Bowl XLVI. Sounds like a lot of welding to me.

Of course, gases are at work throughout the game, whether it’s helium balloons, medical oxygen on the sidelines or carbon dioxide making sure fans’ drinks are nice and foamy. GAWDA member Cyl-Tec designed and installed the entire nine tank cryogenic CO2 beverage system within Lucas Oil Stadium. The system stores pressurized, liquefied gas, with a high capacity for vaporization that allows more gas per volume.

Photo Courtesy James Smith/Dallas Cowboy

Dallas Cowboys Stadium hosted the Super Bowl in 2011 with over 165,000 ft. of welding.

Finally, if you’re in town for the game and you’re in the mood for a steak, it turns out Indy offers a venue unlike any other. Dunaway’s Palazzo Ossigeno (“Oxygen Building” in Italian) is housed in a building formerly used for the manufacture of bottled oxygen and hydrogen up until 1991. The Indiana Oxygen Building, as it is known, was built in 1930 by the GAWDA member of the same name. No word on whether knowing the building’s former owners can help you get a reservation.

Also, for recommended reading, be sure to check out “Gases And Welding In The Big Game,” which talks about how welding and gases were at work in last year’s Super Bowl—starting with the fact that the host stadium’s arches alone have over 165,000 ft. of welding.

The Truth About CO₂ In Your New Year’s Champagne

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Rose Champagne
When it comes to New Year’s celebrations, champagne is a staple. But the bubbly would not be so bubbly if not for carbon dioxide.

But wait just a minute, gas industry, before boasting at your New Year’s Eve gatherings. The CO2 in traditional champagne is naturally occurring. The original sparkling wine (champagne is simply sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France) was discovered accidentally when wine was put through a second fermentation process, with CO2 as a byproduct of yeast and the sugar in wine.

Of course, that’s the traditional method. Today, less expensive champagnes typically use gas injection methods similar to carbonating soft drinks. Now, gas industry, is your turn to take the credit. However, using this method results in larger bubbles that dissipate quickly, so traditionalists still insist on making sparkling the old-fashioned way. Believe it or not, using gas injection for sparkling wine is actually prohibited in Europe!

Since the traditional “méthod Champenoise” requires yeast, it also requires the removal of the yeast sediment after the fermentation is complete, called disgorging. Through a lengthy process of riddling, either manual or automated, the yeast is brought to the neck of the bottle. Many sparkling wine makers then dip the neck of the bottle in liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the yeast before quickly uncorking (the carbonation causes the yeast to shoot out) and recorking. Other methods can be used as well, from propylene glycol to an ice bath, although I’ve come across one sparkling winemaker that uses a mixture including dry ice.

So even if you are drinking authentic champagne this New Year’s Eve, there’s still a good chance the gas industry had something to do with it. But if your host didn’t spring for the expensive stuff, you may have the gas industry to thank. Either way, you can always impress the guests by explaining why carbon dioxide causes champagne to shoot out of the bottle. Check out the video below to learn about the science of CO2 in sparkling wine—and how to pour it properly for maximum CO2 retention.

Have a happy new year and a safe New Year’s Eve!