Helium (He) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert monatomic chemical element that heads the noble gas group in the periodic table and whose atomic number is 2. Its boiling and melting points are the lowest among the elements and it exists only as a gas except in extreme conditions.
An unknown yellow spectral line signature in light was first observed from a solar eclipse in 1868 by French astronomer Pierre Janssen who is jointly credited with the discovery of the element with Norman Lockyer who observed the same eclipse and was the first to propose this was a new element which he named helium. In 1903, large reserves of helium were found in the natural gas fields of the United States, which is by far the largest supplier of the gas. The substance is used in cryogenics, in deep-sea breathing systems, to cool superconducting magnets, in helium dating, for inflating balloons, for providing lift in airships and as a protective gas for many industrial uses (such as arc welding and growing silicon wafers). Inhaling a small volume of the gas temporarily changes the timbre and quality of the human voice. The behavior of liquid helium-4's two fluid phases, helium I and helium II, is important to researchers studying quantum mechanics (in particular the phenomenon of superfluidity) and to those looking at the effects that temperatures near absolute zero have on matter (such as superconductivity).
Helium is the second lightest element and is the second most abundant in the observable Universe. Most helium was formed during the Big Bang, but new helium is being created as a result of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars. On Earth, helium is relatively rare and is created by the natural radioactive decay of some elements, as alpha particles that are emitted consist of helium nuclei. This radiogenic helium is trapped with natural gas in concentrations up to seven percent by volume, from which it is extracted commercially by a low-temperature separation process called fractional distillation.
On March 26, 1895 British chemist Sir William Ramsay isolated helium on Earth by treating the mineral cleveite (a variety of uraninite with at least 10% rare earth elements) with mineral acids. Ramsay was looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas liberated by sulfuric acid, he noticed a bright yellow line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of the Sun. These samples were identified as helium by Lockyer and British physicist William Crookes. It was independently isolated from cleveite the same year by chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Abraham Langlet in Uppsala, Sweden, who collected enough of the gas to accurately determine its atomic weight. Helium was also isolated by the American geochemist William Francis Hillebrand prior to Ramsay's discovery when he noticed unusual spectral lines while testing a sample of the mineral uraninite. Hillebrand, however, attributed the lines to nitrogen. His letter of congratulations to Ramsay offers an interesting case of discovery and near-discovery in science.
In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds demonstrated that alpha particles are helium nuclei by allowing the particles to penetrate the thin glass wall of an evacuated tube, then creating a discharge in the tube to study the spectra of the new gas inside. In 1908, helium was first liquefied by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes by cooling the gas to less than one kelvin. He tried to solidify it by further reducing the temperature but failed because helium does not have a triple point temperature at which the solid, liquid, and gas phases are at equilibrium. Onnes' student Willem Hendrik Keesom was eventually able to solidify 1 cm3 of helium in 1926.
In 1938, Russian physicist Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa discovered that helium-4 has almost no viscosity at temperatures near absolute zero, a phenomenon now called superfluidity. This phenomenon is related to Bose-Einstein condensation. In 1972, the same phenomenon was observed in helium-3, but at temperatures much closer to absolute zero, by American physicists Douglas D. Osheroff, David M. Lee, and Robert C. Richardson. The phenomenon in helium-3 is thought to be related to pairing of helium-3 fermions to make bosons, in analogy to Cooper pairs of electrons producing superconductivity.
This put the United States in an excellent position to become the world's leading supplier of helium. Following a suggestion by Sir Richard Threlfall, the United States Navy sponsored three small experimental helium production plants during World War I. The goal was to supply barrage balloons with the non-flammable, lighter-than-air gas. A total of 200 thousand cubic feet (5,700 m3) of 92% helium was produced in the program even though only a few cubic feet (less than 100 liters) of the gas had previously been obtained. Some of this gas was used in the world's first helium-filled airship, the U.S. Navy's C-7, which flew its maiden voyage from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. on December 1, 1921.
Although the extraction process, using low-temperature gas liquefaction, was not developed in time to be significant during World War I, production continued. Helium was primarily used as a lifting gas in lighter-than-air craft. This use increased demand during World War II, as well as demands for shielded arc welding. The helium mass spectrometer was also vital in the atomic bomb Manhattan Project.
The government of the United States set up the National Helium Reserve in 1925 at Amarillo, Texas with the goal of supplying military airships in time of war and commercial airships in peacetime. Due to a US military embargo against Germany that restricted helium supplies, the Hindenburg was forced to use hydrogen as the lift gas. Helium use following World War II was depressed but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to ensure a supply of liquid helium as a coolant to create oxygen/hydrogen rocket fuel (among other uses) during the Space Race and Cold War. Helium use in the United States in 1965 was more than eight times the peak wartime consumption.
After the "Helium Acts Amendments of 1960" (Public Law 86–777), the U.S. Bureau of Mines arranged for five private plants to recover helium from natural gas. For this helium conservation program, the Bureau built a 425 mile (684 km) pipeline from Bushton, Kansas to connect those plants with the government's partially depleted Cliffside gas field, near Amarillo, Texas. This helium-nitrogen mixture was injected and stored in the Cliffside gas field until needed, when it then was further purified.
By 1995, a billion cubic meters of the gas had been collected and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting the Congress of the United States in 1996 to phase out the reserve. The resulting "Helium Privatization Act of 1996 (Public Law 104–273) directed the United States Department of the Interior to start liquidating the reserve by 2005.
Helium produced between 1930 and 1945 was about 98.3% pure (2% nitrogen), which was adequate for airships. In 1945, a small amount of 99.9% helium was produced for welding use. By 1949, commercial quantities of Grade A 99.95% helium were available.
For many years the United States produced over 90% of commercially usable helium in the world, while extraction plants in Canada, Poland, Russia, and other nations produced the remainder. In the mid-1990s, a new plant in Arzew, Algeria producing 600 million cubic feet (1.7 m3) began operation, with enough production to cover all of Europe's demand. Meanwhile, by 2000, the consumption of helium within the US had risen to above 15,000 metric tons. In 2004–2006, two additional plants, one in Ras Laffen, Qatar and the other in Skikda, Algeria were built, but as of early 2007, Ras Laffen is functioning at 50%, and Skikda has yet to start up. Algeria quickly became the second leading producer of helium. Through this time, both helium consumption and the costs of producing helium increased. In the 2002 to 2007 period helium prices doubled, and during 2008 alone the major suppliers raised prices about 50%.
Helium is the least reactive noble gas after neon and thus the second least reactive of all elements; it is inert and monatomic in all standard conditions. Due to helium's relatively low molar (atomic) mass, in the gas phase its thermal conductivity, specific heat, and sound speed are all greater than any other gas except hydrogen. For similar reasons, and also due to the small size of helium atoms, helium's diffusion rate through solids is three times that of air and around 65% that of hydrogen.
Helium is less water soluble than any other gas known, and helium's index of refraction is closer to unity than that of any other gas. Helium has a negative Joule-Thomson coefficient at normal ambient temperatures, meaning it heats up when allowed to freely expand. Only below its Joule-Thomson inversion temperature (of about 32 to 50 K at 1 atmosphere) does it cool upon free expansion. Once precooled below this temperature, helium can be liquefied through expansion cooling.
Most extraterrestrial helium is found in a plasma state, with properties quite different from those of atomic helium. In a plasma, helium's electrons are not bound to its nucleus, resulting in very high electrical conductivity, even when the gas is only partially ionized. The charged particles are highly influenced by magnetic and electric fields. For example, in the solar wind together with ionized hydrogen, the particles interact with the Earth's magnetosphere giving rise to Birkeland currents and the aurora.
Unlike any other element, helium will remain liquid down to absolute zero at normal pressures. This is a direct effect of quantum mechanics: specifically, the zero point energy of the system is too high to allow freezing. Solid helium requires a temperature of 1–1.5 K (about −272 °C or −457 °F) and about 25 bar (2.5 MPa) of pressure. It is often hard to distinguish solid from liquid helium since the refractive index of the two phases are nearly the same. The solid has a sharp melting point and has a crystalline structure, but it is highly compressible; applying pressure in a laboratory can decrease its volume by more than 30%. With a bulk modulus on the order of 5×107 Pa it is 50 times more compressible than water. Solid helium has a density of 0.214 ± 0.006 g/ml at 1.15 K and 66 atm; the projected density at 0 K and 25 bar is 0.187 ± 0.009 g/ml.
Helium I has a gas-like index of refraction of 1.026 which makes its surface so hard to see that floats of styrofoam are often used to show where the surface is. This colorless liquid has a very low viscosity and a density one-eighth that of water, which is only one-fourth the value expected from classical physics. Quantum mechanics is needed to explain this property and thus both types of liquid helium are called quantum fluids, meaning they display atomic properties on a macroscopic scale. This may be an effect of its boiling point being so close to absolute zero, preventing random molecular motion (thermal energy) from masking the atomic properties.
Helium II is a superfluid, a quantum-mechanical state of matter with strange properties. For example, when it flows through capillaries as thin as 10−7 to 10−8 m it has no measurable viscosity. However, when measurements were done between two moving discs, a viscosity comparable to that of gaseous helium was observed. Current theory explains this using the two-fluid model for helium II. In this model, liquid helium below the lambda point is viewed as containing a proportion of helium atoms in a ground state, which are superfluid and flow with exactly zero viscosity, and a proportion of helium atoms in an excited state, which behave more like an ordinary fluid.
Helium II also exhibits a creeping effect. When a surface extends past the level of helium II, the helium II moves along the surface, seemingly against the force of gravity. Helium II will escape from a vessel that is not sealed by creeping along the sides until it reaches a warmer region where it evaporates. It moves in a 30 nm-thick film regardless of surface material. This film is called a Rollin film and is named after the man who first characterized this trait, Bernard V. Rollin. As a result of this creeping behavior and helium II's ability to leak rapidly through tiny openings, it is very difficult to confine liquid helium. Unless the container is carefully constructed, the helium II will creep along the surfaces and through valves until it reaches somewhere warmer, where it will evaporate. Waves propagating across a Rollin film are governed by the same equation as gravity waves in shallow water, but rather than gravity, the restoring force is the Van der Waals force. These waves are known as third sound.
In the fountain effect, a chamber is constructed which is connected to a reservoir of helium II by a sintered disc through which superfluid helium leaks easily but through which non-superfluid helium cannot pass. If the interior of the container is heated, the superfluid helium changes to non-superfluid helium. In order to maintain the equilibrium fraction of superfluid helium, superfluid helium leaks through and increases the pressure, causing liquid to fountain out of the container.
The thermal conductivity of helium II is greater than that of any other known substance, a million times that of helium I and several hundred times that of copper. This is because heat conduction occurs by an exceptional quantum-mechanical mechanism. Most materials that conduct heat well have a valence band of free electrons which serve to transfer the heat. Helium II has no such valence band but nevertheless conducts heat well. The flow of heat is governed by equations that are similar to the wave equation used to characterize sound propagation in air. When heat is introduced, it moves at 20 meters per second at 1.8 K through helium II as waves in a phenomenon known as second sound.
Helium-3 is present on Earth only in trace amounts; most of it since Earth's formation, though some falls to Earth trapped in cosmic dust. Trace amounts are also produced by the beta decay of tritium. Rocks from the Earth's crust have isotope ratios varying by as much as a factor of ten, and these ratios can be used to investigate the origin of rocks and the composition of the Earth's mantle. He-3 is much more abundant in stars, as a product of nuclear fusion. Thus in the interstellar medium, the proportion of He-3 to He-4 is around 100 times higher than on Earth. Extraplanetary material, such as lunar and asteroid regolith, have trace amounts of helium-3 from being bombarded by solar winds. The Moon's surface contains helium-3 at concentrations on the order of 0.01 ppm. A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986, have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith and use the helium-3 for fusion.
Liquid helium-4 can be cooled to about 1 kelvin using evaporative cooling in a 1-K pot. Similar cooling of helium-3, which has a lower boiling point, can achieve about 0.2 kelvin in a helium-3 refrigerator. Equal mixtures of liquid He-3 and He-4 below 0.8 K separate into two immiscible phases due to their dissimilarity (they follow different quantum statistics: helium-4 atoms are bosons while helium-3 atoms are fermions). Dilution refrigerators use this immiscibility to achieve temperatures of a few millikelvins.
It is possible to produce exotic helium isotopes, which rapidly decay into other substances. The shortest-lived heavy helium isotope is helium-5 with a half-life of 7.6×10−22 seconds. Helium-6 decays by emitting a beta particle and has a half life of 0.8 seconds. Helium-7 also emits a beta particle as well as a gamma ray. Helium-7 and helium-8 are created in certain nuclear reactions. Helium-6 and helium-8 are known to exhibit a nuclear halo. Helium-2 (two protons, no neutrons) is a radioisotope that decays by proton emission into protium, with a half-life of 3x10−27 seconds.
Helium has been put inside the hollow carbon cage molecules (the fullerenes) by heating under high pressure. The endohedral fullerene molecules formed are stable up to high temperatures. When chemical derivatives of these fullerenes are formed, the helium stays inside. If helium-3 is used, it can be readily observed by helium nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Many fullerenes containing helium-3 have been reported. Although the helium atoms are not attached by covalent or ionic bonds, these substances have distinct properties and a definite composition, like all stoichiometric chemical compounds.
In the Earth's atmosphere, the concentration of helium by volume is only 5.2 parts per million. The concentration is low and fairly constant despite the continuous production of new helium because most helium in the Earth's atmosphere escapes into space by several processes. In the Earth's heterosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere, helium and other lighter gases are the most abundant elements.
Nearly all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay. The decay product is primarily found in minerals of uranium and thorium, including cleveites, pitchblende, carnotite and monazite, because they emit alpha particles, which consist of helium nuclei (He2+) to which electrons readily combine. In this way an estimated 3000 tonnes of helium are generated per year throughout the lithosphere. In the Earth's crust, the concentration of helium is 8 parts per billion. In seawater, the concentration is only 4 parts per trillion. There are also small amounts in mineral springs, volcanic gas, and meteoric iron. Because helium is trapped in a similar way by non-permeable layer of rock like natural gas the greatest concentrations on the planet are found in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is derived. The concentration varies in a broad range from a few ppm up to over 7% in a small gas field in San Juan County, New Mexico.
Airships, balloons and rocketry Because it is lighter than air, airships and balloons are inflated with helium for lift. While hydrogen gas is approximately 7% more buoyant, helium has the advantage of being non-flammable. In rocketry, helium is used as an ullage medium to displace fuel and oxidizers in storage tanks and to condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. It is also used to purge fuel and oxidizer from ground support equipment prior to launch and to pre-cool liquid hydrogen in space vehicles. For example, the Saturn V booster used in the Apollo program needed about 13 million cubic feet (370,000 m³) of helium to launch. Commercial and recreational Helium alone is less dense than atmospheric air, so it will change the timbre (not pitch) of a person's voice when inhaled. However, inhaling it from a typical commercial source, such as that used to fill balloons, can be dangerous due to the risk of asphyxiation from lack of oxygen, and the number of contaminants that may be present. These could include trace amounts of other gases, in addition to aerosolized lubricating oil.
For its low solubility in nervous tissue, helium mixtures such as trimix, heliox and heliair are used for deep diving to reduce the effects of narcosis. At depths below small amounts of hydrogen are added to a helium-oxygen mixture to counter the effects of high pressure nervous syndrome. At these depths the low density of helium is found to considerably reduce the effort of breathing.
Helium-neon lasers have various applications, including barcode readers. Industrial For its inertness and high thermal conductivity, neutron transparency, and because it does not form radioactive isotopes under reactor conditions, helium is used as a heat-transfer medium in some gas-cooled nuclear reactors. Helium is used as a shielding gas in arc welding processes on materials that are contaminated easily by air.
Helium is used as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, in titanium and zirconium production, and in gas chromatography, because it is inert. This property also makes it useful in supersonic wind tunnels.
Because it diffuses through solids at three times the rate of air, helium is used as a tracer gas to detect leaks in high-vacuum equipment and high-pressure containers.
Helium, mixed with a heavier gas such as xenon, is useful for thermoacoustic refrigeration due to the resulting high heat capacity ratio and low Prandtl number. The inertness of helium has environmental advantages over conventional refrigeration systems which contribute to ozone depletion or global warming.
Scientific The use of helium reduces the distorting effects of temperature variations in the space between lenses in some telescopes, due to its extremely low index of refraction. This method is especially used in solar telescopes where a vacuum tight telescope tube would be too heavy.
Liquid helium is used to cool certain metals to the extremely low temperatures required for superconductivity, such as in superconducting magnets for magnetic resonance imaging. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN uses 96 tonnes of liquid helium to maintain the temperature at 1.9 Kelvin. Helium at low temperatures is also used in cryogenics.
Containers of helium gas at 5 to 10 K should be handled as if they contain liquid helium due to the rapid and significant thermal expansion that occurs when helium gas at less than 10 K is warmed to room temperature.
Inhaling helium can be dangerous if done to excess, since helium is a simple asphyxiant and so displaces oxygen needed for normal respiration. Breathing pure helium continuously causes death by asphyxiation within minutes. Inhaling helium directly from pressurized cylinders is extremely dangerous, as the high flow rate can result in barotrauma, fatally rupturing lung tissue. However, death caused by helium is quite rare, with only two fatalities reported between 2000 and 2004 in the United States.
At high pressures (more than about 20 atm or two MPa), a mixture of helium and oxygen (heliox) can lead to high pressure nervous syndrome, a sort of reverse-anesthetic effect; adding a small amount of nitrogen to the mixture can alleviate the problem.