Up, Up, and Away! Helium's Story

Carolyn Loos
5 December 2012

Above: Image © Hey Paul, Wikimedia Commons

Did you know? Helium was named for Helios, the Greek god of the sun.

Helium is much more than just floating balloons and high, squeaky voices. Granted, our fascination with this element often begins with our first tug on a string tied to a magically hovering balloon. But helium’s story is not all laughs. It’s also filled with life-saving heroics. Helium can make a party balloon float, but it can also prevent dangerous chemical reactions during the production of hydrogen-based rocket fuel. Limited supplies of helium means its future is uncertain.

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The light “fingerprints” of hydrogen (upper) and helium (lower).

Helium was discovered by looking at rainbows. To be more precise, by the late 1800s, scientists knew that a prism could split white light into the spectrum of colours associated with rainbows. During the same period, researchers also learned that, when an element is heated and its glowing light is passed through a prism, lines will appear in unique locations along the spectrum. This technique, called spectroscopy, allows for the identification of an element according to its 'fingerprint' of spectral lines. In 1895, helium was first visualized by Pierre Janssen, isolated by William Ramsay, and identified by Norman Lockyer.

Helium has seemingly mysterious properties, which are mostly the result of it being a non-reactive noble gas, as well as its atomic structure—just two protons, two neutrons and two electrons.

Why does breathing helium make you sound like a munchkin? Sound waves move through helium about three times faster than through air: 972 metres per second. That’s faster than some jet aeroplanes! The increased speed makes vocal cords vibrate more quickly, increasing the timbre and pitch of your voice.

Did you know? At absolute zero (-273°C), and under normal pressure, helium is the only known element that remains in a liquid state.

Helium is a lover, not a fighter. As an inert gas, it doesn’t react with other chemicals. However, it does play some exciting roles:

  • Helium can be used in the air tanks of deep-sea divers. It leaves the body more quickly than nitrogen and reduces the time needed for decompression, helping prevent the 'bends.'
  • Helium can act as the carrier in gas chromatography, a technique that vaporizes a substance to analyze its chemical components. For example, it is used by forensic scientists to identify illegal substances.
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3D representation of a helium atom: two protons, two neutrons and two electrons (©iStockphoto.com - fambros)

Helium is generated by the decay of radioactive minerals like uranium clevite, but it can also be commercially extracted by natural gas distillation. Thirty per cent of the world’s helium comes from the southern United States. From 1960 to 1997, the U.S. amassed a large surplus of helium. However, that helium surplus quickly evaporated because of high demand, lower production, and faulty storage equipment. Scientists estimate that the current supply of helium will only last another 25 to 100 years.

Did you know? Scientists believe that helium first appeared at the three minute mark of the universe’s existence, the result of high heat nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms.

But there is still hope for helium. Three new production sites will open over the next year, in Wyoming, Algeria, and Qatar. These sites aim to produce 25% of the planet’s helium. And as with any limited resource, conservation efforts are key to preservation. For example, University of Alberta researchers have installed re-liquefiers in their labs, which recycle 70% of the helium used in physics experiments. Everyday consumers should also consider their impact. Some scientists believe that, given the potential for shortages, a single helium balloon should cost $100.

What do you think? Does more need to be done to protect the supply of helium?

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Carolyn Loos

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