Helium is an industrial commodity with many more important uses than party balloons and making your voice sound funny. Its use is essential in medicine, gas for aircraft, pressurizing rockets and other spacecraft, cryogenic research, lasers, vehicle airbags, and as a coolant for nuclear reactors and superconducting magnets in MRI scanners. The properties of helium make it indispensable, and in many cases there is no substitute for helium.
The United States is the largest global producer of helium, followed next by Qatar. Currently, no other nations come close to the production levels of these two countries. Increasing helium demand and shrinking supply have become a major issue for the United States – over the next decade, international helium extraction facilities are likely to become the main source of world helium supply.
Beyond the basics above, what else should we know about helium? Check out the 20 interesting facts below!
- Helium was not discovered until August 18, 1868. A French astrophysicist named Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen used a new astronomical device called a spectroscope to observe light wavelengths. The spectroscope displayed the spectra, or light wavelengths, as bands of color. While observing the eclipsed sun with a spectroscope, Janssen found a wavelength in the sun’s light that did not correspond to any other element yet found on Earth, in the form of a bright yellow line. Janssen realized he had discovered a new element. Today, we know that helium makes up about 45% of the mass of the sun.
- The word helium comes from the Greek word meaning “sun” (helios). It was named by Joseph Norman Lockyer and English chemist Edward Frankland in 1868 after studies that led them to recognize the existence of helium in the Sun’s atmosphere.
- For some time, helium was believed to exist only in the Sun. However, in 1882, Italian physicist Luigi Palmieri detected helium on Earth when analyzing lava from Mount Vesuvius after it erupted that year. While he analyzed the lava, Luigi Palmieri found the same bright yellow spectra Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen, Joseph Norman Lockyer, and Edward Frankland observed.
- In 1895, while searching for argon, Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay managed to isolate helium by treating a sample of cleveite, a mineral containing uranium, with mineral acids. He collected the gases that were produced and sent a sample of to two scientists, Norman Lockyer and Sir William Crookes, who were able to identify the helium within it. Sir William Ramsay is credited with discovering the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 “in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air.”
- Two Swedish chemists, Nils Abraham Langlet and Per Theodor Cleve, independently isolated helium from clevite about the same time as Sir William Ramsay. Also in 1895, Langlet was the first to correctly define helium’s atomic weight.
- In 1903, an oil well in Kansas struck a gas geyser that was almost two percent helium. This huge discovery allowed for helium-filled airships during World War I. “Valuable Balloon Gas First Discovered at Dexter, but Was Thought to be Worthless—It Wouldn’t Light.” – Oil and Gas News (1919)
- By 1915, with WWI in full swing, the need to replace the highly explosive hydrogen with the inert nonexplosive helium as the gas to inflate military dirigibles and balloons became a high priority. Developing a viable commercial supply of helium fell under the auspices the U.S. Army and Navy. The army built the first experimental helium extraction plant in 1915 at Petrolia, Texas, in Clay County and soon thereafter the Navy built two more experimental plants north of Fort Worth. They all used gas from the Petrolia field, which provided natural gas with a helium content in the one percent range.
- In 1921, shortly after the end of WWI and as a result of those first experimental operations, the Department of the Navy opened a large-scale commercial helium extraction plant near Fort Worth.
- In 1928, helium became available on the open market for the first time.
- 1940: The Manhattan Project scientists used helium to make the atomic bomb. Hans Bethe proposed several ways that hydrogen nuclei could be fused with helium nuclei, which proved to be fundamentally important to the completion of the atomic bomb while also expanding knowledge of the science of nuclear fission and fusion. In addition to this, Bethe assisted with creating the formula for calculating the critical mass of uranium-235—the radioactive material found in the earliest atomic bombs used against Hiroshima in 1945.
- In the early 1950s, Jack B. Kelley of Amarillo developed a unique tank truck that could safely transport helium and other “exotic” gases at extremely high pressures.
- On July 4, 2012, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced the discovery of a new particle that is “consistent with the Higgs boson,” believed to be responsible for giving other particles their mass. Approximately 96 tonnes of superfluid helium-4 are needed to keep the magnets of the Large Hadron Collider at their operating temperature of 1.9 K (−271.25 °C).
- In May 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in coordination with other executive branch agencies, published a list of 35 critical minerals (83 FR 23295), including helium. This list was developed to serve as an initial focus, pursuant to Executive Order 13817, ‘‘A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals” (82 FR 60835).
- Helium’s melting point is the lowest of all the elements and it has a boiling point of -452 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Helium is part of a group of chemical elements called noble gases; the other five that occur naturally are neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon. Under normal conditions they share similar properties, including being less likely to participate in chemical reactions. Helium is the second least reactive element after neon.
- Helium is second only to hydrogen in its abundance in the universe, making up approximately 24 percent of the universe’s mass.
- At temperatures close to absolute zero, helium condenses to a liquid with amazing properties. Helium becomes superfluid – with a density 1/8th that of water and zero friction, helium in this state is able to flow through cracks as small as a single molecule.
- On Saturn, a sort of helium rain, mixed with liquid hydrogen, falls into the atmosphere in an extreme environment of temperature and pressure. Scientists believe this helium “rain” falls to the core of the planet.
- Helium exists in Earth’s atmosphere only because it is constantly resupplied from two sources – the decay of radioactive elements on Earth and cosmic rays. The helium we buy in cylinders is produced by the natural decay of radioactive elements in the Earth’s crust such as thorium and uranium.
- In 2018, U.S. consumption of Grade-A helium was 39 million cubic meters (1.4 billion cubic feet), and it was used for magnetic resonance imaging, 30%; lifting gas, 17%; analytical and laboratory applications, 14%; welding, 9%; engineering and scientific applications, 6%; leak detection and semiconductor manufacturing, 5% each; and various other minor applications, 14%.