If you ever had the scarring experience of watching your balloon drift into the sky after losing your grip as a child, you can blame Helium. However Helium is more than a culprit for balloon escapes: it’s the second most abundant element in the universe.
Invisible but Ever-Present
Helium is the first of the noble gasses on the periodic table; it has no color, taste, odor, or toxicity, so it’s no wonder that it wasn’t detected until the latter part of the 19th century.
Despite being exceedingly common among all things in the observable universe (second only to hydrogen), it is a somewhat rare material on Earth—and only getting rarer by the day. Helium only occurs at about 5.2 parts per million by volume in the atmosphere; terrestrial helium (which can be extracted for commercial use) occurs through radioactive decay.
Helium is a gas at room temperature, and it likes to stay that way. Despite having the lowest boiling and freezing points of any element, Helium can only be converted to a solid state when it is both frozen and subjected to a fair amount of pressure.
An Unusual Discovery
During a total solar eclipse in 1868, a scientist observed a bright yellow line with a wavelength in the chromosphere of the Sun. At first, Helium was assumed to be Sodium. Later, scientists concluded that it was something else when it was detected on Earth.
In 1895, Sir William Ramsay accidentally isolated Helium when he was looking for Argon. Less than 10 years later, a gas geyser in Kansas was found to be made of nearly 2% Helium. This gave credence to the idea that there may be Helium reserves buried in the Earth, and the U.S. fast became the world’s largest producer of Helium.
Helium has the potential to form unstable compounds with a number of other elements, like iodine, sulphur, and phosphorous.
When you think of Helium, you probably imagine things floating. In the beginning, this was a major use of the material; Americans equipped their military planes and warships with a great deal of Helium during World War II.
Additionally, the Helium Mass Spectrometer (used to detect leaks) was a vital tool for the Manhattan Project, which infamously created the atomic bomb. Tragically, the Hindenburg (being a German Zeppelin) was filled with hydrogen rather than non-flammable Helium which was only abundant in America.
Later, liquid Helium took on the important role of serving as a coolant to create rocket fuel during the Space Race. Now, a helium shortage plagues the globe as a result of high consumption over the last 100 years.
Still, Helium is critical to the function of some unexpected machinery. As a cryogenic coolant, Helium is critical to cooling the high powered magnets used in MRI scanners as well as NMR Spectrometers.
More Purpose Than Parties
Despite these serious uses, Helium is still largely considered a good time element. Because it makes balloons float, and gives you a squeaky voice when you inhale it, it’s hard to imagine that helium could ever be part of a serious application.
In the sense that it is non-toxic and versatile, Helium is certainly friendly, but its actual usefulness spans far beyond making parties more lively.
It’s shocking to think that Earth may have used up its own supply of one of the universe’s most abundant elements, but perhaps that is simply a testament to the great usefulness of Helium.