Questions About Balloons


 

Here Are Some Frequently Asked Questions
 (And Answers!) About Balloons

 

What are rubber balloons made from?

Higher quality rubber (toy) balloons are made from a naturally occurring substance called Latex. Latex is biodegradable and will decompose as fast as an oak leaf in your back yard given identical conditions. The degradation process begins almost immediately after inflated balloons are exposed to the air. This can be seen by the oxidation --the "frosting" ---that begins to coat Latex balloons after they have been inflated for awhile. Exposure to elevated temperatures and sunlight quickens this process, but natural microorganisms will also attack and decompose natural Latex rubber even in the dark. The total degradation time of a Latex balloon will vary depending on the precise environmental conditions it encounters, but it can be as short as several weeks.

Where does Latex come from?

Latex is a naturally occurring milky sap that comes from rubber trees (Hevea brasilliensis) that grow in many of the world's rain forests. Currently, Thailand is the world's largest producer of natural Latex. Countries with other large sources of natural Latex include Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Viet Nam. The Latex is collected by cutting the bark of the tree with a knife and catching the Latex in a cup as it drips out. The process is very much like the way sap is harvested from maple trees to make maple syrup. This harvesting is accomplished all without doing permanent damage to the tree. A single rubber tree can produce rubber for about 40 years! Because rubber trees represent a nearly perpetual cash crop, this helps discourage people from cutting them down, which, in turn, helps preserve the rain forests of the world for future generations.  

What's more, because rubber trees consume Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from the air and give off Oxygen (O2), they act as natural "air scrubbers"... helping to cleanse our planet of excess CO2 (a so-called "greenhouse gas") while generating life-giving oxygen in the process.   With environmental groups and political campaigns all focused these days on encouraging citizens and businesses to reduce their "carbon footprint",  this makes the use of balloons made from natural latex one the "greenest" forms of event decor around, particularly as latex balloons are naturally biodegradable as well.

Latex is also classified as...would you believe...a vegetable?

How and when were Latex balloons invented?

Toy balloons were invented in England the same year as the electro-magnet (1824). Early balloons were made from pig bladders and later from a rubber similar to that used to make rain boots. However, the modern-day, manufactured Latex toy balloon---the kind you buy and blow up yourself---has only been around for 80 years or so. It's inventor is generally considered to be a chemical engineer from New England, USA named Neil Tillotson. Back in 1931, Mr. Tillotson had become extremely frustrated while trying to make useable inner tubes from raw Latex. So, just for fun, he scrawled the shape of a cat's head on a piece of cardboard, cut it out and then dipped it in the liquid Latex to see what would happen. When the rubber dried, he inflated the little bag he had produced and found, much to his surprise, that he had made a "cat balloon"---complete with ears! He produced about 2000 of these balloons and sold them on the street corner at Boston's annual Patriot's Day Parade that year. Needless to say, the new novelty was a big hit with the crowds. The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Mr. Tillotson later went on to found one of the USA's oldest and largest Latex balloon manufacturers, Tillotson Rubber Company. I'm told the company is now being operated by Mr. Tillotson's son and they they are still in the business of manufacturing and selling their unique line of "Tilly®"Latex balloons.

How are Latex balloons made today?

Pure Latex, in its natural form, is milky white in colour. It usually arrives in North America from rubber producing countries via large ocean going tanker ships. It is then either shipped by rail or trucked to the balloon manufacturer. To make it suitable for balloon production, various curing agents along with accelerators, oil, colour, and water must first be added to the mix. After these elements are added, the prepared Latex is placed into a wide, open-topped tank that is located immediately beside the balloon production line.

Almost all commercially produced Latex balloons are now manufactured by dipping metal balloon forms (in the same shape and size of the uninflated balloon it will help produce) into these tanks of liquid Latex. For example, a balloon form for a round balloon is shaped like small light bulb. However, before the forms can be dipped into the liquid Latex, they must first be dipped into a coagulant that causes the rubber particles of the Latex to collect on the form. This coagulant is calcium nitrate, water, and/or alcohol. After the coagulant coated form is dried, the actual process of balloon making can commence.

In the next part of the process (most of which is automated these days) the variously shaped balloon forms are dipped "upside down" into the open-topped Latex tank at the proper point in the production process. For example, to make a round balloon, the form is dipped bulbous (top) end first. Because it is dipped "upside down", the excess Latex has a tendency to drip off the "top" of the form, making that part of the balloon just a little bit thicker than the bottom. This forms what is called a "drip tip" on that end. These are the little dark spots of thicker Latex you often see in the top center (or ends) of most inflated Latex balloons. It also follows that because the Latex at the top of the balloon is usually the thickest, the thinnest (and therefore the weakest) part of the balloon will usually be near its neck.

After dipping, the Latex coated forms are turned right side up again and are then passed through a set of revolving brushes that roll the balloon necks into the familiar looking beads or lips that aid in the inflation of the balloon (these beads are called "nubbins" in the balloon industry). In this part of the process, the excess (ragged) Latex at the bottom of the neck end of the balloon mold is rolled upwards (toward the bulbous or wide end of the balloon) by small motorized brushes. The brushes are positioned horizontally (one on each side of each row of molds) and are mounted so as to "point" toward the approaching molds. As the rows of Latex-coated molds progress down the production line, they pass between the rotating, cone shaped brushes. The brushes turn in opposite directions and lightly touch the molds at the neck (bottom) end, thus rolling the Latex into the familiar nubbin shape on each newly formed balloon. This process all occurs while the Latex is still uncured.

Now, the almost-completed balloon, still on its form, is washed in hot water to remove any unused nitrate. Following this process (called "leaching"), the balloon-covered forms are then put into an oven at 200-220 degrees Fahrenheit (in a process called "vulcanizing") to cure for 20-25 minutes. Once cured, the completed balloons are removed from their forms (stripped) and sorted for later imprinting or prepared directly for packaging and shipping. The metal forms are saved for later use and can be re-used over and over again in future production runs.

A fully automated balloon factory (running multiple (automated) production lines) can produce upwards of one million Latex balloons per day this way!

How are Latex balloons imprinted?

Most Latex balloons manufactured today are imprinted using one of three popular methods, depending upon the quantity, balloon size, delivery date, quality of the imprinting desired and/or other factors involved in the order. Contrary to popular belief, most imprinted Latex balloons manufactured these days are not hand stamped in a deflated condition as they once were! Rather, most are usually imprinted in an inflated state and are either sprayed, offset or screen printed.

When balloons are inflated for printing, they are only inflated to approximately 75 to 80 percent of the total capacity. This gives the proper tension to the surface of the balloon for the ink to successfully transfer. Specialized "balloon friendly" inks must also be used that will penetrate (and adhere) to the surface of the balloon but yet not penetrate completely through the Latex into the interior, causing holes. Once placed on the balloon, the ink is then allowed to dry and the balloons are then deflated, drummed in rotating industrial dryers (to shrink them back to their "like new" condition) and then packaged.

One popular method of imprinting creates what the Pioneer Balloon Company (makers of the popular Qualatex® line of balloons) calls a spray balloon. In this process, balloon ink in various colours is simply sprayed onto balloons by a machine after automatically inflating them. The inflated balloons are rotated as the ink is sprayed on, usually in some form of recurring, all around pattern. The more popular Qualatex patterns include multi-colored polka dots, squiggles, stripes, stars, music notes, candles, etc. These sprayed-on patterns result in an image that is not nearly as sharp as other, more labor intensive imprinting methods when the balloon is fully inflated for use. So, while this form of imprinting is a bit less expensive than the more labor intensive forms of imprinting, it also results in a less "bold" imprint on the balloon.

The next imprinting method is a form of offset printing. In this process, balloon ink is applied to a plate which reads right, the plate then transfers the ink to a printing drum, and the image reads wrong. The inflated balloon is then rolled across the printing drum transferring the image to the balloon. The image once again reads right.

A third, and increasingly popular method of printing (but probably the most labor-intensive) is called silk screening. In this process, a silk screen (onto which an image has been etched) is laid over an inflated balloon and balloon ink is then forced through the image area mesh in the screen and onto the balloon. The silk screening is usually done by using a holding device for the balloon that looks very much like a ordinary wooden box. A worker manually places an inflated balloon into the box and then slightly compresses the surface of the printing area of the screen onto the balloon prior to applying the ink with a roller-like device. This process may be repeated multiple times for a single balloon depending on how much of the balloon is to be imprinted (front, back, top, all around, etc.) This type of screening can also be done with an automatic machine on small to medium size balloons. Once the image(s) are placed on the balloons, the balloon is released and deflation begins. However, by the time the balloon is deflated, the ink must be dry in order to prevent offsetting it onto other balloons in close proximity. To speed this process along, newly imprinted balloons are sometimes placed (neck first) into a conveyor belt device that moves the balloons beside a line of heaters to help dry the ink as the balloons deflate.

As you can see, the process of imprinting balloons is a laborious, often manual (human-tended) activity. This is why imprinted printed latex balloons are so much more expensive than unprinted balloons to produce.

Why to Latex balloons go BANG! when they burst?

Contrary to popular belief, the loud noise you hear when Latex balloons burst is not due to the sudden release of high pressure gas contained inside the balloon...such pressure isn't all that great. Rather, the BANG is caused by the tightly stretched ends of the torn Latex balloon pieces exceeding the speed of sound (and, thus, creating a "sonic boom" ) as they quickly snap back to their pre-inflated size. Specifically, when a tiny crack develops in the surface of an inflated Latex balloon (such as when a pin pricks it) the resulting rapid release of energy stored in the stretched Latex accelerates the crack to near the speed of sound in rubber.  Since this speed is much higher than the speed of sound in air, the running crack actually breaks the sound barrier!   The loudness of the bang is usually dependent on how much the Latex is stretched before it bursts. This is why even small Latex balloons stretched to their limits will often make a much louder BANG when they burst than a larger balloon that is not stretched as tightly.

Where does Helium come from and why is is so expensive?

Helium is a non-flammable, non-toxic, non-radioactive, naturally occurring and environmentally friendly gas that, after hydrogen, is the second most abundant element in the Universe. However, on Earth, helium is relatively rare. In the USA it is mined, or more precisely, "drilled for" in or near the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle from natural gas wells that also happen to be encased in radioactive rock. The rocks decay over millions and millions of years and, in the course of that decay, release a non-radioactive by-product --- Helium --- one molecule at a time! The helium gas accumulates in the same pocket that produces the natural gas. Both are recovered together and then later separated.   

Unfortunately, if it’s not extracted during the natural gas refining process, the helium it contains is simply lost.  And because it is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing, its value is considerably less.  So, extracting it from the natural gas stream is therefore a secondary consideration.  Or, to put it another way,  right now, helium isn’t valuable enough to those making billions from natural gas extraction to justify developing a natural gas field and then also building a helium gas processing plant purely to extract helium from that natural gas stream.  The helium distillation plant would be an add on.

Following World War I, up to 32 billion cubic feet of helium gas were bunkered underground by the US government at the Cliffside Field near Amarillo, Texas, called the ‘Federal Helium Reserve’. This stockpile was set up to be privatized after the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 was passed.  This helium is now being sold off at a constant rate (roughly 2.2 billion feet per year) with the intent of fully depleting the Federal Reserve (except for a permanent strategic reserve of 600 million cubic feet) by 2018. 

The US Bureau of Land Management pipeline and the associated private crude Helium plants handling this strategic resource were all designed to produce 4 billion cubic feet per year of crude helium to supply the 6 private helium refineries located along this pipeline system. However, due to the continuing depletion of current helium-bearing natural gas fields, these refineries can no longer operate at full capacity.  Increasing demand (along with a fixed rate of its removal from the Federal Reserve) plus depletion of these helium-gas-bearing natural gas fields have all conspired to reduce the available supply of helium in the United States by approximately 300 million cubic feet per year.  And that gap is expected to continue growing each year as demand continues to rise and non-strategic reserve sources continue to be depleted.

And while there is an abundance of helium-bearing natural gas in the Middle East, the needed infrastructure to extract it from there has yet to reach full capacity, all of  which means that...at least for the foreseeable future...helium to fill balloons will continue to be scarce...and, therefore, ever-more expensive!

Why do Helium-filled balloons float?

Helium-filled balloons float in air in much the same way than an inner tube floats on water. That is, if you stand underwater at the bottom of a large swimming pool and you also happen to have an inflated inner tube down there at the bottom with you, when you release the inner tube, it will quickly rise to the surface of the pool. That's because both the inner tube and the volume of air it contains weigh far less than the volume of water the inflated inner tube displaces. Hence, the inner tube quickly rises to the surface of the pool and then floats on top of the water.

Likewise, when you stand outside in front of your home, you are actually standing at the bottom of a "pool" of air that is many (many!) miles deep. So, when a balloon is inflated with Helium, it displaces a volume of air equal to the balloon's inflated size. As long as the total weight of the inflated balloon plus the Helium it contains is lighter than the volume of the relatively "heavier" air that it displaces, the balloon will tend to float to the "surface" of the pool of air surrounding it in much the same way that an inner tube floats to the surface of a swimming pool. However, in this case, the top of the "pool" of air is actually the top of the Earth's atmosphere!

How long will my Helium-filled balloons float?

While it's the small size (and hence the "lightness") of the Helium molecule that causes Helium-filled balloons to float, this attribute also creates a pesky problem when trying to keep Helium-filled Latex balloons inflated for long periods of time. Because Helium molecules are so much smaller than the space between the molecules of stretched Latex rubber, Helium will slowly seep out of a Latex balloon directly through the balloon's wall. This is why untreated Helium-filled Latex balloons only stay inflated for a relatively short period of time as compared to air-filled balloons.

On average, untreated 11 inch diameter Helium-filled Latex balloons can be expected to float for about 12-18 hours, and 16 inch diameter Latex balloons will float for up to 24-36 hours after being initially filled (your "mileage" may vary depending on temperature and atmospheric conditions!) Treating the inside of Latex balloons with a water soluble, transparent plastic material called Hi-Float® will greatly help them hold their Helium longer. This product works because its molecular structure (plastic) is much "tighter" than Latex rubber, so it reduces the rate of Helium loss through the Latex balloon's outer wall.

What happens to Helium-filled Latex balloons released outdoors?

Research has shown that after Latex balloons are launched, they often rise to an altitude of about five miles where they begin to freeze in the -50 degree Fahrenheit cold. In addition, the strong differential between the gas pressure inside the balloon and the near vacuum outside the balloon at that altitude causes the balloons to expand to the point were they eventually burst. However, because the Latex is frozen, the bursting balloon tears into shreds (the exact scientific term is called "brittle fracture"). These tiny, spaghetti-like pieces then scatter over a wide area as they fall back to Earth where they naturally begin to decay according to the process we discussed earlier.

When were foil balloons invented and how are they made?

Silver metalized balloons were first developed for the New York City ballet in the late 1970s. These balloons are sometimes (mistakenly) called "Mylar" balloons, but they are almost always made from sandwiched sheets of plastic (polyethylene) and nylon that are then coated with aluminum. Because of this, the balloon industry prefers to call them "foil" balloons. They are much more expensive to produce than ordinary Latex balloons. While the molecular structure of foil balloons is much "tighter" than stretched Latex, even with these balloons, Helium will still eventually seep out through the inflation seal of a foil balloon and leave them loosely sagging and flat.

Are foil balloons biodegradable like Latex balloons?

Because foil balloons contain aluminum they are NOT considered to be biodegradable. What's more, as these balloons contain metal, they can (and will) conduct electricity. Thus, they should NEVER be released outdoors because they could become entangled with power lines and lead to commercial power outages.

How big is the balloon industry today?

Currently, there are several dozen companies worldwide who manufacture balloons. One of the largest is the Pioneer Balloon Company, makers of the Qualatex® line of balloons that we at Beautiful Balloons use almost exclusively in our balloon decor efforts. Pioneer has the plant capacity to manufacture over 1 BILLION Latex balloons annually. That's over 4 million balloons a day from just one of the many balloon companies around the world now doing business. Any way you cut it, producing and marketing balloons has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Are Latex balloons safe for children to play with?

Balloons are fun. But, they should also be handled responsibly and discarded with caution if they happen to burst or otherwise reach the end of their brief, but nonetheless enjoyable lifetimes. So, a few words of caution are in order:


WARNING:
CHOKING HAZARD --Children under eight (8) years can choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons. Adult supervision is required.  Keep all uninflated balloons away from children and discard broken balloons at once. Care should be taken while inflated balloons are near eyes and eye protection is always recommended while inflating balloons. For health and safety reasons, do not inflate balloons by mouth.  Inhaling Helium can also result in serious lung injuries and/or suffocation. Do
not inhale Helium from a balloon or a Helium tank under any circumstances!


Where can I find more information about balloons?

One of the best online sources (and a virtual wealth of information about balloons and ballooning!) is contained at the Balloon HQ website. Additional historic data about balloons (including a more detailed discussion regarding much of the balloon history and environmental information presented here) can also be found in printed materials available from the Balloon Council an industry trade and advocacy group that promotes the balloon industry as a whole.

 

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