What is helium?

Modified on Fri, 12 Mar, 2021 at 6:21 PM

Helium is a non-reactive element on the periodic table. The following is a list of its properties.

  • Atomic Number: 2
  • Atomic Weight: 4.002602
  • Melting Point: 0.95 K (-272.2°C or -458.0°F)
  • Boiling Point: 4.22 K (-268.93°C or -452.07°F)
  • Density: 0.0001785 grams per cubic centimeter
  • Phase at Room Temperature: Gas
  • Element Classification: Non-metal
  • Period Number: 1
  • Group Number: 18
  • Group Name: Noble Gas
  • Etymology: Named for the Greek god of the sun, Helios.
  • Pronunciation: HEE-lee-em.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe but is a rare element on Earth because it is is a non-renewable natural resource and very difficult to capture.

 It was discovered on the sun before its discovery on the earth by French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen. He noticed a yellow line in the sun's spectrum while studying a total solar eclipse in 1868. This unknown element was later named ‘helium’ by Sir Norman Lockyer, an English astronomer.

Helium can reach extremely low temperatures without freezing making it very useful. This important gas comes from the radioactive decay of uranium which causes helium to be released into underground gas chambers and reserves over millions of years. Oil companies then extract the helium through a process called fractional distillation.  This is when the natural gases are broken down into their individual elements in order to isolate the helium.

The U.S.A. has been the largest producer of helium in the world since 1925 and is home to one of the largest reserves in the world called the Federal Helium Reserve. This reservoir can be found between the state lines of Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma, however, the plant is expected to close production in 2021 because of depletion. 

Qatar was the second-largest exporter of helium in the world, but political tensions in 2017 resulted in the plant closing, causing the global supply to choke. Eventually, tensions in Qatar did cool down allowing two companies to merge to begin producing limited amounts of helium.

Current existing sources of helium have become depleted and many industries are at risk because of the shortage.

See Helium Shortage for more information.

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