Helium

What is Helium?

Helium is the lightest noble gas that has been detected and is the only element of the Helium periodic table and was discovered by the French astronomer Pierre Janssen, who also detected a bright yellow line in the solar chromosphere spectrum during an eclipse in 1868. The helium element can be found on the top right side of the periodic table, and the atomic number of helium is 2, where it comes first amongst the noble gases family.

It held a single atomic orbital and was named by Frankland and Lockyer. The term helium is derived from the Greek word "Helios," which means Sun. Before it was discovered, scientists knew there was an enormous amount of helium in the Sun.

Since its outermost electron orbital is full with two electrons, helium falls under inert gas. Also, helium can be found in compressed air tanks, lasers, and as a coolant in nuclear reactors. Helium holds the lowest melting and boiling points among all the other elements. The Nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars generates helium in a significant amount.

The Helium symbol is  He.


Abundance of Helium

Helium is the second lightest and most abundant element in the universe, which is observable (where hydrogen is the most abundant and lightest). It exists about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the combined heavier elements. In both the Sun and in Jupiter, its abundance is similar to the same.

This is because of the very high nuclear binding energy (per nucleon) of helium-4, concerning the next three elements after helium. Also, Helium-4 binding energy is accountable for why it is a product of both radioactive decay and nuclear fusion. The most amount of helium in the universe is helium-4, the huge majority of which was formed at the time of the Big Bang. Excess amounts of new helium are being created by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars.

The abundance of helium-3 and helium-4 is equivalent to 0.0002% and 99.9998%, respectively. This difference in abundances can be seen in the Earth's atmosphere, where the ratio of 4He atoms to 3He atoms is nearly 1000000:1.


Isotopes of Helium

Although there are eight isotopes of helium (He) (standard atomic mass: 4.002602(2) u), which are known, from those, only helium-3 (3He) and helium-4 (4He) are stable. All the radioisotopes are short-lived, and the longest-lived is being 6He, with a half-life of

806.7 milliseconds. The least stable is 5He, with a half-life of 7.6×10−22 seconds, even though it is possible that 2He has a shorter half-life ever.

There is one 3He atom for every million 4He atoms in the Earth's atmosphere. However, helium is an unusual element in that its isotopic abundance varies highly based on its origin. The proportion of 3He is up to a hundred times higher in the interstellar medium. Different formation processes of two stable isotopes of the helium produce different isotope abundances.


Properties of Helium

The helium element is an odorless, colourless, insipid, and non-toxic, gas. Other than any has, it is less soluble in water. It is also the less reactive element and doesn't form chemical compounds essentially. The viscosity and density of helium vapour are very low. The thermal conductivity and the caloric content of helium are exceptionally high. Helium can be liquefied, but its condensation temperature is the lowest when compared to all the known substances. The physical and chemical properties of Helium gas are given below briefly.

The physical properties of helium are nothing but the characteristics that are seen without changing the substance into another. The physical properties of helium are tabulated below.


Physical Properties of Helium

Color

Helium is colourless

Phase

Gas

When cooled, it condenses to liquid helium, which is the only element that does not solidify at normal pressure irrespective of the temperature

Density

Helium gas is less dense compared to any other known gas except hydrogen and it is about one seventh as dense as air

Odor

Helium is odorless

Viscosity

Extremely low

Taste

Helium is a tasteless gas

Compounds

It is completely inert. And, it doesn’t form compounds or react with any other elements.


Chemical Properties of Helium

Chemical properties are simply the characteristics that define how the element reacts with other substances or changes from one to another substance. And, the chemical properties are seen only during a chemical reaction.


The Chemical Properties of Helium are Tabulated Below.

Chemical Formula

He

Reactivity with Water

Less soluble in water compared to any other gas

Toxicity

Non Toxic

Flammability

Non-Flammable


Health Effects of Helium

Humans have no sense that they can detect the presence of Helium. Although Helium is non-toxic and inert, it can act as a simple asphyxiant by displacing oxygen in the air to the below-required levels to support life. Excessive inhalation of Helium can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and death.

Death may result from confusion, errors in judgment, loss of consciousness that prevents self-rescue. At low concentrations of oxygen, unconsciousness and death may occur in seconds without any warning. Personnel, including rescue workers, should not enter areas where the concentration of oxygen is lower to 19.5% unless offered with a self-contained breathing apparatus or an air-line respirator.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What is Helium Used for?

Helium can be used for many of the reasons. A few of the helium uses are listed below.

  • One of the helium uses is, it is used as inert pressurizing gas for rocket fuels

  • Used as a breathing mixture for undersea diving at greater depths

  • Can use as a purging agent for specialized piping systems, for those used in labs or in the semiconductor industries

  • Used as an inert flood gas for some specialized production techniques

  • Used as a lifting gas

  • Can work as the minimal temperature cryogenic liquid possible, making it extremely valuable coolant for superconducting magnet coils, for the ones used in MRI machines

  • As a last one, a cryogenic coolant for superconducting magnet coils, where there is no better alternative to liquid Helium.

2. Where is Helium Found?

Helium is found in the sun and Jupiter. The most common form of Helium is the isotope helium-4 (shortly, He-4). It is deemed to have been formed in the Big Bang. Large amounts of new Helium are being generated by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in the stars.

Helium is relatively rare on Earth. It is found in concentrations of 5.2 parts per million in the atmosphere. However, most Helium on Earth is created by the natural radioactive decay of uranium and thorium elements. Helium is trapped with natural gas up to the concentrations of 7% by volume, from which it is extracted.

It is from this natural gas resource that we rely on for most of our Helium. And it is said that these reserves are running out. However, there may be large untapped reserves in the Rocky Mountains of North America and untapped natural gas reserves.