Make Your Voice Sound Like a Cowboy (Girls Also)

By Anupum Pant

Everyone who watches The Big Bang Theory on TV must have had a hearty laugh when Sheldon’s voice went funny in the 9th episode of season 3 (video).
In the video, when Sheldon starts talking on an NPR show about magnetic monopoles , Kripke uses a Helium tank to fill Sheldon’s room with Helium. As a result, his [Sheldon’s] voice shifts pitch and starts sounding really funny.

In this article we’ll see, what is it in Helium that makes our voices go funny. And we’ll also see another interesting gas that makes your voice sound like a cowboy. But first, some things about Helium:

Helium Warning

1. Do not use Helium to play. It is kind of a non-renewable resource. At the same time, it is used in laboratories for physics experiments. When you play with it and release it into the atmosphere, Helium is lost forever. I wrote an article on this couple of days back. [Understanding the impending Helium crisis]

2. Although Helium is a non-toxic gas and no it doesn’t kill brain cells, it can still kill you. Pranks like the one Kripke uses, which could potentially fill up the whole room with Helium could have lethal consequences. Too much Helium and you’ll not be breathing [enough] Oxygen. Even if you don’t care about the first point, you should think about inhaling more than 3 Helium filled balloons (or any other gas) during parties – it could kill you by asphyxiation (specifically, Hypoxia).

Talking about death, these speakers can also kill you – Plasma Speakers.

Why does Helium make voices go Daffy duck?

Helium is the second lightest element (gas) after Hydrogen. It is six times lighter than air. And if you’ve read this article on how sound works, you probably know that sound travels with different speeds through different mediums.
The speed of sound is about 3 times faster in helium, than in air. When you take in Helium, it increases the speed of sound that comes out of your mouth. It does nothing to your vocal chords. Faster sound and same wavelength results in a higher frequency sound.

Contrary to what is popularly believed, Helium doesn’t technically alters the pitch of your voice. [Read more]

Sulphur Hexafluoride

Helium voices are quite popular. On the other hand, sulphur Hexafluoride voices aren’t very commonly known.
Completely opposite to Helium, this is 6 times heavier than air. So, inhaling it makes your voice go really deep. The mechanism is just opposite to that of Helium. It makes sound move slower. Again, technically, it doesn’t change the pitch of your voice. Watch the video below:

Where can you find this gas?

Sulfur hexafluoride is used for eye surgery and ultrasound in hospitals. Also, it is widely used in the industry for various things. So, you could go to someone, who supplies gasses like these (Oxygen, Argon etc.) to hospitals and industries. Then you could request them to let you collect it in a small balloon (they won’t let you).
So, you could simply study science, work in laboratories and have such fun activities everyday (in moderation).

Side Note: Inhaling another non-toxic noble gas, Xenon, also does something similar. It is heavier than air so it makes your voice deep. At the same time, xenon will make your pockets extremely light.

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Understanding the Impending Helium Crisis

by Anupum Pant

There is too much Helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, present at about 24% of the total elemental mass. Helium is also the second lightest element. So, 24% by mass is too huge a mass for a single light element. It equates to a measure that is probably millions of times more than what humanity could use up in millions of years. Close to about 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined, this element will almost never run out. But, that is only when we talk about the universe. Back in Earth, it is completely a different story.

Helium sources for us

On Earth, Helium is relatively rare. It amounts to only a 0.00052% volume of the earth’s atmosphere. Although 0.00052% is not too less, you also can’t consider it as an abundant element. Moreover, extracting Helium from air is almost 10,000 times more costly than fractional distillation (mentioned in the next paragraph). So, all that Helium in air is nearly useless to us till better methods of extraction are invented.
Thankfully, Helium is also present under the surface of the earth. The source of this kind of deposit is, radioactive decays which take place down there. It mixes with the natural gas and is lost to space, if released into the atmosphere. It is separated from natural gas using a process called fractional distillation – The best process to make Helium.

The largest known underground reserve estimated to contain about 10 billion cubic feet of Helium is a federal reserve (mostly under Texas and Kansas). For years US reserves had been the largest global suppliers of Helium (90%). Even today, these reserves contribute to more than 35% of the total global supply. The price of Helium coming from this source has remained almost unchanged for a long time. While during the same period (10 years) privately held Helium prices have tripled. The gap in prices is increasing every day, creating a big distortion in the market.

Helium Usage

Uses of Helium range from manufacturing smart phone screens (all LCD screens) to optical fibers (Internet cables) to health care (MRI scanners) to scientific research etc. [Uses of Helium]

The Problem

Since Helium has been made artificially cheap due to the Helium privatization act, it is popularly believed to be a cheap gas and is wasted a lot. Instead of using it up for important things, we consume it by filling up party balloons, distort voices and other entertaining activities. In fact, the warning issued by the Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson that Helium could be depleted within a generation, seems to have had no effect on us. We still continue to waste a lot of Helium, release it into the air and keep losing it forever. Not many realize that it is a non-renewable resource.

We have almost reached a crisis already, but it was temporarily averted by the congress. In the future, after about 6-7 years, when the Federal Reserve stops supplying it (at below-market prices), it could be a big problem. I’m not very optimistic about market adjusting within such a small span either. In under a decade, we’ll probably see smart-phone prices, optical fiber prices and health care (MRI scans etc.) prices shoot up precipitously due to this artificial market distortion, if we do not start using Helium properly.