Helium Element

Helium: The Element that Powers the Universe

Helium is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table. Its atomic number is 2, and it is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the observable universe, primarily formed through stellar nucleosynthesis. This article delves into the discovery, properties, uses, and pivotal role of helium in science and technology.

Discovery of Helium

Helium was first discovered not on Earth but in the Sun. During a solar eclipse in 1868, French astronomer Pierre Janssen observed a yellow spectral line in the Sun’s spectrum, which he initially attributed to sodium. Later that year, British astronomer Norman Lockyer also observed the same spectral line and concluded that it was caused by an unknown element, which he named helium after the Greek god of the Sun, Helios.

The terrestrial discovery of helium came in 1895 when Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay, while isolating gases from a mineral called cleveite, detected the same yellow spectral line. Independently, Swedish chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet confirmed the presence of helium in the same mineral.

Properties of Helium

Physical Properties

  • Atomic Number: 2
  • Atomic Weight: 4.002602 u
  • Density: 0.1786 g/L at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure)
  • Melting Point: -272.20°C (0.95 K)
  • Boiling Point: -268.93°C (4.22 K)
  • Phase at Room Temperature: Gas
  • Thermal Conductivity: 0.1513 W/(m·K)
  • Ionization Energy: 24.5874 eV

Helium remains in a gaseous state except at extremely low temperatures and high pressures. It exhibits the lowest boiling and melting points among the elements and does not solidify under standard atmospheric pressure. Instead, helium must be cooled to near absolute zero and subjected to high pressures to achieve a solid state.

Chemical Properties

Helium is chemically inert, meaning it does not readily form compounds with other elements. This inertness arises from its full valence shell of electrons, which makes it stable and unlikely to react chemically. Helium’s inert nature makes it invaluable in applications where non-reactivity is essential.

Abundance and Sources

Cosmic Abundance

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It constitutes about 24% of the elemental mass of the universe. Helium is primarily produced through nuclear fusion in stars, where hydrogen nuclei (protons) fuse to form helium.

Terrestrial Abundance

On Earth, helium is relatively rare, accounting for only about 5.2 parts per million by volume in the atmosphere. Helium is primarily extracted from natural gas reserves, where it accumulates over millions of years from the radioactive decay of heavy elements such as uranium and thorium. The largest helium reserves are found in the United States, particularly in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Applications of Helium

Medical Applications

  • MRI Machines: Helium is critical in the medical field, especially for cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines. The low boiling point of helium allows it to maintain the extremely low temperatures necessary for these magnets to function.
  • Respiratory Treatments: Helium-oxygen mixtures are used in respiratory treatments for conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The low density of helium helps improve airflow in patients with obstructed airways.

Scientific Research

  • Cryogenics: Helium is essential in cryogenics, the science of extremely low temperatures. Liquid helium is used to achieve temperatures close to absolute zero, enabling research in quantum mechanics and superconductivity.
  • Particle Accelerators: Helium is used in particle accelerators to cool the superconducting magnets and provide a stable, inert environment for high-energy physics experiments.

Industrial Applications

  • Welding: Helium is used as a shielding gas in welding processes, such as gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) and gas metal arc welding (GMAW). It protects the weld area from atmospheric gases, ensuring a high-quality weld.
  • Leak Detection: Helium is used in leak detection due to its small atomic size and inertness. Helium leak detectors are employed in various industries, including aerospace, automotive, and chemical manufacturing, to identify and fix leaks in systems and components.

Aerospace and Defense

  • Rocket Propellant: Helium is used as a pressurizing and purging agent in rocket propulsion systems. Its inertness and low density make it ideal for these applications.
  • Airships and Balloons: Helium’s low density and non-flammability make it the gas of choice for inflating airships and weather balloons. Unlike hydrogen, helium does not pose a risk of explosion.

Helium in Technology

Electronics and Semiconductors

Helium plays a crucial role in the electronics industry, particularly in the manufacturing of semiconductors and fibre optics. It provides an inert atmosphere that prevents oxidation and contamination during the production process. Helium is also used in cooling systems for various electronic components, ensuring optimal performance and longevity.

Nuclear Fusion

Helium is a byproduct of nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun and other stars. In experimental fusion reactors, such as tokamaks and stellarators, helium is produced when hydrogen isotopes (deuterium and tritium) fuse to form helium and release vast amounts of energy. Achieving controlled nuclear fusion on Earth could provide a nearly limitless source of clean energy.

The Science of Superfluid Helium

What is Superfluidity?

Superfluidity is a state of matter where a liquid flows without viscosity. Helium-4 exhibits superfluidity at temperatures close to absolute zero.

Helium-3 vs. Helium-4

Helium-4 is more common and easier to liquefy, while helium-3, an isotope, requires much lower temperatures to become superfluid. Both have unique properties valuable in scientific research.

The Helium Shortage

Despite its abundance in the universe, helium is a finite resource on Earth. The extraction of helium from natural gas reserves is not keeping pace with demand, leading to concerns about a global helium shortage. This shortage has significant implications for industries that rely on helium, prompting efforts to find alternative sources and develop recycling technologies.

Conservation and Recycling

To address the helium shortage, efforts are being made to conserve and recycle helium. Advances in technology have enabled the capture and reuse of helium in various applications, reducing waste and preserving this valuable resource. Additionally, research is ongoing to develop new methods for extracting helium from previously untapped sources, such as the Earth’s crust and extraterrestrial bodies.

Environmental Impact of Helium Extraction

Ecological Concerns

Helium extraction can have environmental impacts, including habitat disruption and greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas processing.

Sustainable Practices

To mitigate these impacts, sustainable extraction methods and recycling of helium are being developed. Advances in technology aim to reduce the environmental footprint of helium use.

The Future of Helium

The future of helium lies in balancing its limited terrestrial supply with the growing demand across multiple industries. Innovations in helium conservation, recycling, and extraction will be critical in ensuring a sustainable supply of this essential element. Furthermore, continued research into helium’s properties and applications will likely yield new and exciting uses for this remarkable gas.

Interesting Facts About Helium

Fun Trivia

  • Helium was the first element discovered in space before being found on Earth.
  • Helium’s voice-changing effect occurs because sound travels faster in helium than in air.

Surprising Uses

  • Helium is used in deep-sea diving to prevent nitrogen narcosis.
  • It cools the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.


Helium is a unique and indispensable element with a wide range of applications in medicine, science, industry, and technology. Its discovery, properties, and uses highlight the importance of this noble gas in advancing human knowledge and improving our quality of life. As we face the challenges of a global helium shortage, it is crucial to explore new sources, develop recycling technologies, and promote conservation efforts to ensure a sustainable future for this vital resource.

Helium’s versatility and unique properties make it irreplaceable in many critical applications, from cooling MRI machines and enabling high-energy physics experiments to improving welding processes and ensuring the safety of airships. Its role in emerging technologies, such as nuclear fusion and advanced electronics, underscores its continued significance in future scientific and industrial advancements.

Efforts to mitigate the helium shortage are ongoing, with a focus on efficient extraction methods, recycling initiatives, and alternative sources. As these efforts progress, the responsible and sustainable management of helium resources will be essential to maintain its availability for critical applications and future innovations.


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Common FAQs

What is Helium used for?

Helium is used in medical imaging, scientific research, welding, leak detection, and inflating balloons and blimps.

How is Helium extracted?

Helium is extracted from natural gas deposits through cryogenic distillation, which cools the gas to isolate helium.

Is Helium safe to inhale from balloons?

Inhaling helium from balloons can be dangerous as it displaces oxygen in the lungs, leading to potential asphyxiation.

Why is there a Helium shortage?

The helium shortage is due to its non-renewable nature and increasing demand in various industries, including medical and scientific fields.

Can Other elements replace helium?

While alternatives like hydrogen are explored, they lack helium’s unique properties of inertness and low reactivity, making it challenging to replace.

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