Helium – an element in crisis

Helium properties

How not to react

Helium (He) is an inert gas and belongs to the noble gases, Group 18, of the periodic table. It exists as a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and non-toxic gas. It gets its name from the Greek god Helios, the god of the sun. The long process of radioactive alpha decay of uranium and thorium forms the element Helium. Therefore, it is a nonrenewable resource.

Ten interesting facts about Helium

  1. Helium is the only element that cannot be solidified using effective cooling methods under normal atmospheric pressure. The system’s zero-point energy is too high to allow for freezing.
  2. The US produces approximately 90% of the world’s Helium.
  3. Helium’s demand increased during World War II. Lighter-than-air crafts used it.
  4. Helium mass spectrometer was used to detect and locate small leaks in the Manhattan Project in which the first nuclear weapons were manufactured.
  5. The Helium Act of 1925 banned the export of Helium since it is nonrenewable.
  6. Rocket fuel utilized Helium as a coolant during the Cold War and Space Race.
  7. Helium can be liquified via expansion cooling.
  8. Heating under high pressure can insert helium into the hollow carbon cage of fullerenes.
  9. Fractional distillation can extract helium from large scale natural gas for large scale industrial purposes.
  10. Since 2005, the Helium extracted from natural gas reserves in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Panhandle Field in Texas is being depleted and sold. It is expected to be entirely depleted by 2021.
  11. The planet Saturn consists of 3% helium.

Helium in the Periodic Table

Helium has atomic symbol He, and atomic number 2. The element helium is a noble gas in group 18, the last group of elements on the periodic table. It is the second lightest element, and the most inert.

It lies above neon, element 10. Helium has 2 electrons, which completes its valence shell, the 1s shell. This electron configuration is very stable and explains why helium is so inert.

How is the element Helium made??

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, second only to hydrogen, but it is rapidly depleting. That’s right; new helium cannot be generated in a lab because it is a nonrenewable resource and forms very slowly over time via radioactive alpha decay in rocks. It begins as a different, heavier element, and when exposed to radioactive elements such as uranium, radium, or plutonium, it begins to decay. The decay means that the element splits, forming two smaller, lighter atoms that are unequal in size, one of which is helium!

Superfluid Helium-4

Superfluid helium-4 is quite an interesting state of matter as it behaves like a liquid with a viscosity of zero. Consequently, this viscosity of zero allows the fluid to do crazy things such as flow uphill with no perceivable driving force. Indeed, this seemingly gravity-defying behavior makes superfluid helium-4 a fascinating substance.

Researchers under the expertise of Doctor Peter Taborek are conducting research into the unusual realm of quantum fluids at The Low Temperature Materials Laboratory located at the University of California, Irvine. The lab conducts research into phase transitions of quantum fluids as well as quantum solids.

UCI Low Temperature Lab footage of superfluid Helium-4 transition

Applications in Today’s World

Helium is a very stable atom making it an inert gas. It does not combine with other elements and can retain its pure, elemental state, making it one of the useful gases when working with hygroscopic compounds. It rids the atmospheric moisture environment or with sensitive instruments such as a GCMS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry).

People use helium to blow up balloons because it is less dense than air to float. It also changes your voice. The speed of sound in helium is much faster than the speed of sound in the air. Consequently, your voice sounds higher because the sound waves are occurring at a higher rate. The primary use of helium is not for blowing up balloons at birthday parties or making your voice sound funny but has a much more vital application in cryogenics.  MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines and quantum computers use IT as a super cooling agent because of its extremely low boiling point (-268.9oC).

History of Helium

Who discovered Helium?

Helium has a very interesting history. It was first observed in 1868 as a yellow line in the spectrum of the sun by Jules Janssen, who thought it was sodium. Norman Lockyer also witnessed this spectra, concluded it was a new element, and named it helios, the greek word for “sun”.

In 1881, Luigi Palmieri first detected helium on earth. In 1895, sir William Ramsay isolated helium from the mineral cleveite. William Francis Hillebrand also isolated helium, but incorrectly identified it as nitrogen. Hillebrand was nice enough to congratulate Ramsay. So one could say that Sir William Ramsay “discovered” helium on earth.

Physical Properties of the element Helium

  • Atomic Symbol: He
  • Melting point: N/A
  • Boiling point: -268.928oC, -452.07oF, 4.222 K
  • Density: 0.000164 g/cm3 at 20C
  • Atomic weight: 4.003 u
  • Atomic number: 2
  • Electronegativity: Not applicable for noble gases
  • Natural abundance of Helium: second most abundant element next to Hydrogen
  • Electron shell configuration: 1s2
  • Isotopes: 3He,4He
  • Toxicity: Non-toxic

Where can I buy Helium?

Helium is available by chemical companies supplying industries; however, it is also available at many stores that sell party balloons. Natural gas companies provide It, a nonrenewable element, from the byproducts of the wells. The entire US supply is controlled by one private corporation, and as the Helium reserves become increasingly scarce, there will be a large increase in the cost per cubic foot.

Interesting Reading

All about lead iodide
Is gallium a metal?
Mastering Chemistry
How Rutherford discovered nitrogen

Enjoyed reading about helium? Check out the other elements in our Interactive Periodic Table!