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The Many Uses for Gigantic Balloons

Balloons have far more uses than just party favors

When you think of balloons, you probably think of birthday parties, or maybe the movie UP. But balloons have far more uses than just party favors.

Recently, engineers have tested out a giant balloon that could keep the New York City subways from flooding again. The New York Times writes:

In theory, it would be like blowing up a balloon inside a tube. But in practice, developing a plug that is strong, durable, quick to install and foolproof to deploy is a difficult engineering task, one made even more challenging because of the pliable, relatively lightweight materials required.

“Water is heavy, there’s a lot of pressure,” said Greg Holter, an engineer with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who helps manage the project. “So it’s not as simple as just inflating and filling the space. The plug has to be able to withstand the pressure of the water behind it.”

In Britain, engineers have talked about using a giant balloon to pump particles into the sky and engineer the climate. Popular Science writes:

A team of British researchers are thinking more along the lines of a giant balloon the size of a soccer stadium and a 12-mile garden hose that can pipe chemicals into the stratosphere to slow global warming. And they’re planning to test their hypothesis soon, sending a scaled down version of their sky-hose-balloon-thing skyward in the next few months.

It’s a pretty audacious attempt at geo-engineering, and one that very well might not work. The idea is to mimic the effect that volcanoes have when they erupt, pumping all kinds of particulate matter into the stratosphere that helps reflect solar radiation back into space. And while using a balloon and a long stretch of hose to create an artificial volcano may sound a bit “mad scientist,” the UK government is on board, putting more than $2.5 million behind the project. The Royal Society is backing this.

And in China people are using giant balloons to steal gas. MICgadget says:

People in Binzhou, a small village located at Shandong Province East China region, were stealing natural gas from an oil well. An oil well is designed to acquire petroleum oil through the earth’s surface. Usually some natural gas is produced along with the oil. The poor villagers used huge plastic bags to inflate it with the natural gas, and carried it home. It is so damn dangerous like carrying a “bombs” home. If someone light up a cigarette during half way on the road … Boom ! We are wondering how the villagers going to keep those gas while they get back to home.

Giant balloons can go to space, as this Romanian group tried:

The first attempt to send a rocket to the Moon via balloon hit a snag on Monday. The first test of the Aeronautics and Cosmonautics Romanian Association’s (ARCA) balloon-launched rocket (or “rockoon”) ended in failure when the “inflation arms” used to fill the balloon became entangled in the balloon itself. The arms had to be cut, and the operation – which required the use of a large naval frigate — was curtailed. ARCA hopes to compete in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, and intends on using their unusual rocket system to send an equally unique spherical lunar lander to win a $30 million prize.

And they can help land rovers on Mars. Here’s NASA:

Airbags used in the Mars Exploration Rover mission are the same type that Mars Pathfinder used in 1997. Airbags must be strong enough to cushion the spacecraft if it lands on rocks or rough terrain and allow it to bounce across Mars’ surface at freeway speeds after landing. To add to the complexity, the airbags must be inflated seconds before touchdown and deflated once safely on the ground.

While most new automobiles now come with airbags, spacecraft don’t. The fabric used for the new Mars airbags is a synthetic material called Vectran that was also used on Mars Pathfinder. Vectran has almost twice the strength of other synthetic materials, such as Kevlar, and performs better at cold temperatures.

They can be used to demonstrate a car’s speed, as in this BMW commercial:

So before you write off balloons as play time, remember their vast contributions to society. (Oh, and also, it is possible to fly a house—a specially designed one, at least—using only balloons.)

More from Smithsonian.com:

The End of Balloons

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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