Will adding helium balloons to your package reduce shipping costs?
Millions of important questions get asked every day. Some are easy to answer, like "what time is the next bus?" and "if there's something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call?", while others take a little more deliberation.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does - it's a great big lumping bit of wood. But then again, what is sound but waves that need an ear to validate them? If you add helium to the Christmas present you're about to send, though, will the package be lighter? The answer to this one isn't quite as straightforward.
Would you even want to?
Most shipping companies - us included - will base much of their pricing choices on how heavy a parcel is. In theory, the lighter a parcel is, the better it is for everyone involved. The firm responsible for carrying the item has an easier physical job with lower fuel costs, and the savings are passed down to the sender.
So, reducing the weight by introducing an extremely light chemical element which is capable of exerting an upward force on the box in which it is contained might seem like a great idea to shave a few pounds and, well, save a few pounds. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Problem #1: Size matters
As mentioned above, weight is one way used by shipping companies to determine the amount of money they charge to carry something, but it's not the only way - size is also a big contributing factor. Were this not true, it could potentially cost the same to send a very small piece of lead as it would to send a much larger bag of marshmallows, even though the latter takes up a lot more valuable space in the van.
Considering you'd have to put such a large number of helium balloons in a package to make even the slightest bit of difference, all savings you make by way of weight reduction will likely be counteracted by extra charges for the size of your parcel. This is especially true given the price of helium is rising quickly (pun fully intended).
Problem #2: It's unreliable
Until somebody manages to build a teleportation device, delivery journeys will take time. Thankfully, we've managed to cut ours down to just 24 hours in some cases, but many standard services still take two or three days. Simply put, helium doesn't tend to last too long when it's stuffed inside what is essentially a small rubber sack. Anyone who's been to a birthday party will know that balloons tend to lose their contents pretty quickly - and leakages will only reduce the weight-reduction effect over time.
Problem #3: It's a waste of helium
Ok, we've already established that trying to reduce the weight of a package in this way is more trouble than it's worth. Add to all of the above the fact that helium is a finite resource, and you should have more than enough reason to abandon your ambitious attempts.
In the universe as a whole, helium exists in abundance, but on Earth it's become pretty rare. It's also one of the very few elements that can escape gravity and leave our atmosphere, never to be used again. Seeing as it can be used for so many other purposes, such as in the making of MRI scanner parts, it seems a little selfish to waste it trying - and failing - to cut shipping costs.