From being the second lightest element to being the second in line in terms of abundance in Universe, Helium is an interesting element in the Period Table.
Named after a Greek god, the element has some unique properties. In this article on interesting Helium facts, we are going to learn 60 facts, some of which may have already been known to you.
Still, consider this as a refresher course. In case you need the information for your school project, feel free to use it.
But before we start, let’s go through the list of isotopes of Helium.
|Isotope Name||Type and Abundance||Half-Life (HL)|
|3He||Stable, 0.0002% availability||Stable, and hence, no HL|
|4He||Stable, 99.9998% availability||Stable, and hence, no HL|
Okay, now that you know about the isotopes of helium, it is time we dig into the helium facts as promised. Are you ready?
Helium Facts: 1-5
1. It was 1868, August 18 – a complete solar eclipse totally blanketed the Sun. At that time, Pierre Janssen – an astronomer from France was in India.
2. Janssen was in India not by accident but as a part of his mission to measure Chromosphere – the atmosphere of Sun.
3. It was during that time that Janssen observed that gas spectrum gave away a yellow line. It was strange and Janssen measured its wavelength, which turned out to be 587.49 nanometers.
4. That was the first time a human noticed Helium but it was, at that time, unknown to Janssen. He didn’t really look for the source of the yellow line that showed up in Chromosphere.
5. The same year, in 1868, in the month of October, Sir Norman Lockyer – an astronomer from England set up in London, his own spectrometer. He too noticed that same yellow line.
Helium Facts: 6-10
6. Unlike Janssen however, Lockyer was intrigued by the yellow line, and he teamed up with Edward Frankland – a chemist in England. The duo concluded that the yellow line was caused by an element, yet unknown to mankind.
7. That’s when Lockyer and Frankland came up with the name Helium. It was named after Helios – the Sun God in Greek mythology.
8. It became a popular notion at that time that helium – the newly found element existed only and only in Sun. The reason for this notion was that helium was not seen anywhere else – definitely not on Earth, because no one ever found it.
9. With Lockyer’s and Frankland’s discovery of helium on Sun, no further studies were conducted because of the belief that it existed beyond Earth.
10. In 1882 however, Luigi Palmieri – a physicist from Italy made an interesting observation on Earth. He was studying the gasses that Mount Vesuvius emitted. He noticed a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers. That was the first time ever that Helium was spotted on Earth.
Helium Facts: 11-15
11. Despite the fact that Palmieri found Helium on Earth, it still awaited confirmation. Of course, no one could go digging into Mount Vesuvius to find the source gas of the spotted wavelength.
12. 13 years later in 1895, Helium’s presence on Earth was confirmed when Sir William Ramsey – a Scottish chemist – was conducting an experiment. Ramsey combined mineral acids with Cleveite – an impure and radioactive Uraninite variety, which contains uranium.
13. However, during the same time, Swedish Chemists – Nils Abraham Langer and Per Teodor Cleve also found helium independently. So, they are also credited for its discovery on Earth. It was in 1895 that the atomic weight of helium was found.
14. The fact that helium is found with natural gas as well was still unknown, and was discovered years later in 1905.
15. Though it was found in 1905 that helium is present in natural gas, the hint actually came in 1903 when in Kansas’ Dexter, a new gas well was found and celebrations were held.
Helium Facts: 16-20
16. During the celebration, Mayor of the town decided to ignite the gas that was escaping the well, but only to find that the flame went out once the gas was ignited.
17. Because the escaping gas could not be ignited, the residents of the town were really disappointed. However, the curious brain of Erasmus Haworth – the geologist of Kansas State suspected something unusual.
18. Haworth had some gas collected from the discovered well and started studying the same. To his surprise, he found that gas was composed of 12% inert residue. It took another two years for University of Kansas to find out that the inert contained helium.
19. US is today the largest supplier of helium in whole world, accounting for 30% of world supply, and weirdly enough, the whole supply comes from a single reserve in US. However, small helium concentrations have now been found in Qatar, Canada, Poland, Russia and Algeria.
20. However, only recently scientists have found a helium gas field in a place called Rukwa, which is located in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley region. It is estimated that this newly discovered field may have more Helium than the whole Helium reserve of entire USA.
Helium Facts: 21-25
21. Helium belongs to group 18 of the Periodic Table, and it is represented by the symbol He.
22. Helium belongs to the noble gas family. At room temperature, Helium is present in gaseous state.
23. Helium has an atomic number of 2, and its atomic mass is 4.002602 amu (atomic mass unit).
24. At atom of helium contains 2 electrons, 2 protons, and 2 neutrons (in the most abundant isotope of helium).
25. Density of helium at 20 degrees centigrade is 0.0001787 g/cm3.
Helium Facts: 26-30
26. The atomic radius of helium is 1.40 Å.
27. The melting and boiling points of helium are 0.95K or -457.96 ºF or -272.20 ºC, and 4.222 K or -452.070 ºF or -2683928 ºC respectively.
Note: At normal atmospheric pressure, helium doesn’t solidify. Therefore, there is no melting point at normal atmospheric pressure. The melting point you read above is at a pressure of 25 atmospheres.
30. Of the total elemental mass of our known or visible universe, helium makes up 23%. However, compared to its presence in entire universe, its abundance on Earth is very rare.
Helium Facts: 31-35
31. Helium is an inert gas. It is non-toxic, completely odorless, tasteless and has no color.
32. Helium belongs to the family of noble gases. There are 7 noble gases (oganesson, radon, xenon, krypton, argon, neon, helium) of which, Helium has least density and it is lightest of all the noble gases.
33. When it comes to reactivity of the noble gases, neon is the least reactive while helium takes the second spot in being the least reactive noble gas.
34. Of all elements that exist in this universe, helium has the lowest boiling point and lowest melting point.
35. In order to convert helium into liquid state or solid state, one needs to apply extremely low temperatures and extremely high pressures.
Helium Facts: 36-40
36. When radioactive emissions take place through alpha-decay (α-decay), the emissions are basically helium nuclei.
37. Helium gas when ionized, gives a glow of reddish-orange hew. It was the yellow spectral line of helium that led to its discovery.
38. In case someone accidentally inhales helium, the pitch of his or her voice is raised or increased.
39. At normal pressure, when the temperature is dropped to absolute zero, helium will remain in liquid state. It is the only known element to do so.
40. Helium is the least dense and second lightest of all known elements. It is because of this, when a balloon is filled with helium, it floats up.
Helium Facts: 41-45
41. Deep sea divers (those who dive up to 122 meters or 400 feet) use ‘Heliox’ – a breathing mixture in which, air’s nitrogen is replaced by helium. The reason for this is that at 100 feet (that is 30 meters) or below that, nitrogen can quickly build up within the tissues of the body, causing nitrogen narcosis or fatal decompression illness. Nitrogen narcosis is a condition which is similar to effect of extreme and sudden drunkenness.
42. Our Sun’s 45% of the mass is composed of helium. Actually, hydrogen atoms in Sun fuse together to form helium because of extreme temperatures.
44. The isotope 3He is not found on Earth. This isotope has only one neutron and two protons. This isotope is considered to be ideal for being used as fusion power generation fuel. Interestingly, large quantities of this isotope have been found on the Moon. The reason why 3He is found on moon is that solar winds led to 3He rain on surface of Moon for several billion years.
45. Helium at supercool temperatures can make you go – ‘Huh?’ It becomes a superfluid and does things that no other liquid can do. When the temperature of helium is dropped a few degrees below its boiling point (which is -452.070 ºF) (dropped below -456ºF, that is slightly above Zero Kelvin), it becomes a superfluid.
Helium Facts: 46-50
46. In superfluid state, helium has zero friction and its density becomes 1/8th of that of water. It is capable of flowing through cracks which are as thin as that of the diameter of a molecule. This superfluid helium can also climb the walls of a container and it can also stay absolutely motionless if the container in which it is kept, is spun.
47. At low temperatures, helium can be easily converted into liquid. It is this feature that allows helium to be used in powerful superconducting electromagnets as coolant. In Switzerland’s Geneva, Large Hadron Collider has such electromagnets and liquid helium is used as coolant.
48. MRI scanners in hospitals have magnetic coils that are shaped like rings. These magnetic coils are cooled down to the temperature of –263ºC or –441ºF using liquid helium. Once the coils are cooled the MRI scanners generate intense magnetic fields for a brief period of time.
49. The intense magnetic field of the MRI scanner makes the atoms inside a human body resonate at their respective magnetic signatures. This resonance is then detected by the scanner and detailed images of internal tissues and organs are created. That is how MRI scans work.
50. 0.0005% of Earth’s Atmosphere by volume is made of helium.
Helium Facts: 51-55
51. Though hydrogen is lighter than helium, helium is used for making things float (for example, balloon). The reason for this is that hydrogen is high combustible and hence, dangerous.
52. It is very rare for helium to naturally occur on our Earth. The reason is simple. It is so light that it escapes our atmosphere. The helium that we use today is usually isolated from various other sources. Basically, helium is found along with natural gasses and a process called fractional distillation is used for isolating helium.
53. Using a process called liquefaction, helium can be isolated from atmosphere but the process is too expensive to use.
54. Helium is too light and can escape our planet’s atmosphere. Then, how come it is present in our atmosphere? That’s because it is constantly replenished. There are two sources – (1) cosmic rays which contain high-energy helium nuclei (about 9% of cosmic rays is made of helium) and (2) radioactive decay of elements present on Earth.
55. There are two elements – uranium and thorium (both radioactive) present in Earth’s crust. Through α-decay, these elements release helium. The helium cylinders that are sold in market contain the helium released by radioactive decay.
Helium Facts: 56-61
56. Helium’s lifting force is 1 gram every 1 liter. So, if you want to lift an object of 10 grams using helium, you will need 10 balloons filled with 10 liters of helium each. Going by that calculation, if your weight is 50 kilos, you will need 5000 such balloons to lift you off the ground.
57. The reason why inhaling helium gives a “squeaky voice” is that the vocal cords vibrate faster if the gas surrounding those cords is less dense. This faster vibration increases the pitch of human voice when helium is inhaled.
58. Helium balloons have the ability to reach the edge of the space.
59. NASA has created something known as ULDBs or Ultra Long Duration Balloons. 500 feet tall, these balloons require 20 acres of plastic each for manufacturing. They are capable of carrying or lifting 6000 lbs. all the way up to the height of 110,000 feet – that is above 99% of the atmosphere of Earth.
60. ULDBs are used for sending heavy instruments to the edge of space for the purpose of studying cosmic rays and several other purposes.
61. Open market sale of Helium started in 1928.