The Lighter Side of Science: Exploring the Wonders of Helium (He)







Helium (from the Greek helios meaning Sun)



Orion Nebula.png Classification: Non-metallic

Atomic Mass: 1.00794 g/mol

Density: 0.08988g/cm3

Colour: None

Boiling Point: 20.268K (-252.87°C

Melting Point: 14.01K (-259.14°C)

Critical Temperature: 33K (-240°C)

The outreaching wave is called the prominence and is composed of ionized Helium that is about 60,000 degrees Kelvin. (Image from NASA)



Discovery: Helium was first detected by French astronomer Pierre Janssen during a total solar eclipse in Guntur, India on the 18th of August 1868 using spectroscopy. It was evident as a bright yellow line (a wavelength of 587.49 nanometres) in the spectrum of the Chromosphere of the Sun but it was assumed that this line was produced by sodium which produces similar yellow lines. But it was

On the 20th of October 1868 English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed the same line and concluded that it was produced by an element in the sun that was as yet un-discovered on earth. Lockyer and English chemist Edward Frankland named the element after the Greek word for the Sun (helios).

Helium was not isolated on earth until the 26th of March 1895 when a Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsey isolated samples whilst attempting isolate argon. The samples were confirmed to be Helium by Lockyer and English physicist William Crookes. In the same year helium had independently been isolated by Swedish chemist Per Teodor Cleve and Abraham Langle producing enough samples to accurately determine its atomic weight.



Helium is produced in vast quantities in space through nuclear fussion of hydrogen atoms within stars. On earth Commercially helium is mainly collected from natural gas deposits in Texas, U.S, Algeria and Russia. Produced from radioactive decay hellium is released into the atmosphere which disperses into space.

Helium is the second lightest element and has the lowest melting and boiling point of any element meaning that it is a gas except under very extreme conditions. Helium is the second least reactive noble gas after neon and is non-flammable.It is also the second most abundant element and one of the first elements created after the Big Bang along with Hydrogen.


superconducting magnet.pngLiquid helium is used in superconductors as a coolant. When certain metals are cooled to extremes their electric resistance drops to zero. This phenomenon of super conduction is employed in electromagnets greatly increasing performance and they have been used in a variety of applications including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Sound travels approximately three times faster in helium than it does in air which produces the high pitched effect when inhaled.

Inhalation of helium for several minutes can cause death due to the reduction in oxygen however divers do use a mixture of helium and oxygen when diving to deep levels. This is because using normal air would create a build up of nitrogen deposits in the blood which can lead to the bends. Using pure oxygen also can be harmful when inhaled in high concentration at depth so helium, which is non toxic, is used to dilute the oxygen concentration.

Helium Balloons.pngDue to helium being a non-flammable gas and the second lightest gas it has now become the first choice in airships. Before large deposists were discovered in America helium was rare on earth and during the airships boom pre-1940’s hydrogen was normally used for lift with disasterous results when the hydrogen ignighted.

Airship safety has been vastly improved with the introduction of helium which can lift 1kg for every cubic meter of helium.

Helium is a fascinating element that plays a crucial role in various aspects of our lives, from scientific research to everyday entertainment. It is the second most abundant element in the universe, yet it remains relatively scarce on Earth. In this article, we will explore the abundance of helium in the universe, its discovery and naming, its unique properties as a noble gas, its uses in science and technology, its fun and quirky applications in everyday life, the science behind how it makes balloons float, the surprising health benefits of helium inhalation therapy, the myth of the helium shortage, the future potential and challenges of helium, and its significance in understanding the mysteries of the universe.


  • Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but it is rare on Earth.
  • Helium was discovered in the sun before it was found on Earth and was named after the Greek god of the sun.
  • Helium is the lightest noble gas and has unique properties, such as being non-reactive and having a low boiling point.
  • Helium is used in a variety of modern technologies, including MRI machines and semiconductor manufacturing.
  • Helium is commonly used in balloons and has fun and quirky uses in everyday life, such as making voices sound high-pitched.
  • Helium makes balloons float because it is less dense than air and rises to the top of the balloon.
  • Helium inhalation therapy has been used to treat respiratory conditions and has potential health benefits, but it should only be done under medical supervision.
  • The myth of the helium shortage is largely exaggerated, but there are concerns about the sustainability of helium reserves.
  • Helium has potential applications in fields such as nuclear fusion and space exploration, but there are challenges to accessing and using it.
  • Helium is a valuable tool for studying the mysteries of the universe, such as the formation of stars and galaxies.

Helium: The Second Most Abundant Element in the Universe

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It is estimated to make up about 24% of the elemental mass of the universe. This abundance can be attributed to the fact that helium was formed during the Big Bang, which occurred approximately 13.8 billion years ago. During this event, hydrogen nuclei fused together to form helium nuclei, releasing a tremendous amount of energy.

In comparison to other elements, helium is relatively rare on Earth. This is because helium is a light gas that can easily escape Earth’s gravitational pull. It is often found in small quantities as a byproduct of natural gas extraction. The largest reserves of helium are found in natural gas fields in the United States, particularly in Texas and Oklahoma.

The Fascinating History of Helium Discovery and Naming

The discovery of helium can be traced back to the mid-19th century. In 1868, French astronomer Pierre Janssen observed a yellow line in the spectrum of sunlight during a solar eclipse. Around the same time, English astronomer Norman Lockyer independently observed a similar line and suggested that it was caused by an unknown element.

The element was later named helium, derived from the Greek word “helios,” meaning sun, due to its discovery in the spectrum of the sun. The naming of helium is credited to English chemist Sir Edward Frankland and Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay, who successfully isolated the element in 1895.

Helium: The Lightest Noble Gas with Unique Properties

Property Description
Atomic number 2
Symbol He
Atomic mass 4.003
Boiling point -268.9°C
Melting point -272.2°C
Density 0.1785 g/L
Colour Colourless
Odour Odourless
Uses Used in balloons, airships, MRI machines, welding, and as a cooling agent in nuclear reactors

Helium is classified as a noble gas, which means it is highly stable and does not readily react with other elements. It is the lightest noble gas and has the lowest boiling point of any element, at -268.93 degrees Celsius (-452.07 degrees Fahrenheit). This low boiling point allows helium to exist as a gas at extremely low temperatures, making it useful in cryogenics and superconductivity research.

One of the most unique properties of helium is its ability to remain in a liquid state at extremely low temperatures. At temperatures close to absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), helium becomes a superfluid, which means it can flow without any friction or viscosity. This property has led to significant advancements in the study of quantum mechanics and has practical applications in fields such as particle physics and medical imaging.

The Role of Helium in Modern Science and Technology

Helium plays a crucial role in various scientific and technological applications. In the healthcare industry, helium is used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to cool the superconducting magnets that generate the magnetic field. Helium’s low boiling point allows for efficient cooling, ensuring the MRI machine operates at optimal performance.

In the aerospace industry, helium is used to pressurize fuel tanks and provide lift for airships and blimps. Its low density makes it an ideal choice for these applications, as it allows for greater buoyancy compared to other gases.

Helium is also used in scientific research, particularly in cryogenics and superconductivity studies. Its ability to reach extremely low temperatures without freezing makes it essential for cooling and maintaining the superconducting properties of certain materials.

The Fun and Quirky Uses of Helium in Everyday Life

While helium has important scientific and technological applications, it is also widely used for entertainment purposes in everyday life. One of the most common uses of helium is in balloons. When filled with helium, balloons become buoyant and float in the air, creating a fun and festive atmosphere at parties and events.

Helium is also used in voice-changing toys, such as helium-filled balloons that can alter the pitch of a person’s voice when inhaled. This effect is due to the difference in the speed of sound in helium compared to air, resulting in a higher-pitched voice.

In addition to these well-known uses, helium has other unexpected applications. It is used in leak detection systems, where its low density allows it to escape from small leaks and be detected by sensitive instruments. Helium is also used in deep-sea diving to dilute nitrogen levels in breathing gas mixtures, reducing the risk of decompression sickness.

The Science of Balloons: How Helium Makes Them Float

The science behind how helium makes balloons float lies in the principle of buoyancy. Buoyancy is the upward force exerted on an object immersed in a fluid, such as air or water. This force is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.

When a balloon filled with helium is released into the air, it displaces an amount of air equal to its own weight. Since helium is less dense than air, the upward force exerted on the balloon is greater than its weight, causing it to float upwards.

This principle is also applied in other areas, such as airships and blimps. These vehicles are filled with a large volume of helium gas, which provides the necessary lift to overcome their weight and allow them to float in the air.

The Surprising Health Benefits of Helium Inhalation Therapy

Helium inhalation therapy, also known as heliox therapy, is a medical treatment that involves breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen. This therapy is primarily used to treat respiratory conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and cystic fibrosis.

The unique properties of helium make it beneficial for respiratory therapy. When inhaled, helium has a lower density than air, which reduces the resistance to airflow in the lungs. This can help improve breathing efficiency and alleviate symptoms of respiratory conditions.

Helium inhalation therapy is also used in neonatal care to treat infants with respiratory distress syndrome. The low density of helium allows for easier breathing and can help reduce the need for mechanical ventilation in premature babies.

The Myth of the Helium Shortage: Separating Fact from Fiction

In recent years, there has been concern about a potential helium shortage due to its limited availability on Earth. However, the actual state of helium reserves and production is often misunderstood.

While it is true that helium is a finite resource and its extraction is challenging, there are still significant reserves of helium available. The largest reserves are found in natural gas fields, where helium is extracted as a byproduct. Additionally, efforts are being made to capture and recycle helium from various industrial processes to minimize waste.

The main challenge lies in the cost of helium production and the sustainability of its extraction. Helium is an expensive gas to produce and requires specialized equipment for extraction and purification. There is also a need for more efficient storage and distribution methods to prevent wastage.

The Future of Helium: Potential Applications and Challenges

Despite the challenges facing the helium industry, there are potential future applications that could further increase its demand. One area of interest is nuclear fusion, a process that aims to replicate the energy-producing reactions of the sun. Helium is a byproduct of nuclear fusion reactions and could potentially be used as a fuel source in future fusion power plants.

However, the development of practical fusion power is still in its early stages and faces significant technical and economic challenges. The production and containment of helium in fusion reactors are complex tasks that require advanced engineering and materials.

In addition to the challenges of production and sustainability, the cost of helium is also a concern. As helium is a finite resource, its price has been increasing over the years. This has led to efforts to find alternative gases or develop more efficient helium recovery methods.

Helium: A Window to the Mysteries of the Universe

Helium not only has practical applications in various fields but also provides insights into the mysteries of the universe. Its abundance and properties have played a crucial role in our understanding of the origins and evolution of the universe.

The abundance of helium in the universe, particularly in stars, provides evidence for the Big Bang theory. The formation of helium during the early stages of the universe’s expansion supports the idea that all matter was once concentrated in a hot, dense state.

Ongoing research and discoveries related to helium continue to deepen our understanding of the universe. For example, studies on helium isotopes can provide insights into stellar evolution and nucleosynthesis processes. Helium is also used as a tracer gas in astrophysics to study the movement and distribution of matter in galaxies.

In conclusion, helium is an element that holds great importance in various areas of life and science. Its abundance in the universe, unique properties as a noble gas, and practical applications in science, technology, and everyday life make it a fascinating subject of study.

From its discovery and naming to its potential future applications and challenges, helium continues to captivate scientists and researchers around the world. Its role in understanding the mysteries of the universe and its surprising health benefits further highlight its significance.

As we continue to explore and unlock the potential of helium, it is important to prioritize sustainability and efficient use of this valuable resource. By doing so, we can ensure that future generations can benefit from the many wonders and applications of helium.


What is Helium (He)?

Helium (He) is a chemical element with the atomic number 2. It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, and inert gas that heads the noble gas series in the periodic table.

Where is Helium found?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, being present at about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined. It is found in natural gas deposits and is extracted through liquefaction and separation.

What are the uses of Helium?

Helium has many uses, including being used as a coolant for nuclear reactors and MRI machines, as a lifting gas for balloons and airships, as a protective gas in welding and other industrial processes, and as a gas for breathing in deep-sea diving and medical treatments.

Is Helium dangerous?

Helium is not considered dangerous as it is non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive. However, inhaling helium can be dangerous as it can displace oxygen in the lungs and cause suffocation.

What are the physical properties of Helium?

Helium is a gas at room temperature and has a boiling point of -268.9°C and a melting point of -272.2°C. It has a density of 0.1785 g/L and a molar mass of 4.0026 g/mol. It is the second lightest element and has the lowest boiling point of all the elements.

What are the chemical properties of Helium?

Helium is a noble gas and is therefore chemically inert, meaning it does not react with other elements or compounds. It has a full outer shell of electrons, making it stable and unreactive.

Shell Structure



Protons = 2

Neutrons =2












































Absorption Lines

Helium Absorption Lines

Emission Lines

Helium Emission Lines

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