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helium essay

Extracts from this document...


The essentials

  • Name: magnesium
  • Symbol: Mg
  • Atomic number: 12
  • Atomic weight: 24.3050 (6)
  • CAS Registry ID: 7439-95-4
  • Group number: 2
  • Group name: Alkaline earth metal
  • Period number: 3
  • Block: s-block

The essentials

  • Name: helium
  • Symbol: He
  • Atomic number: 2
  • Atomic weight: 4.002602 (2) gr
  • CAS Registry ID: 7440-59-7
  • Group number: 18
  • Group name: Noble gas
  • Period number: 1
  • Block: p-block

Description image00.png

Here is a brief description of helium.

  • Standard state: gas at 298 K
  • Colour: colourless
  • Classification: Non-metallic
  • Availability:

Helium is one of the so-called noble gases. Helium gas is unreactive, colourless, and odourless. Helium is available in pressurised tanks.

Elemental helium is a colourless odourless monoatomic gas. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. α particles are doubly ionised helium atoms, He2+.

Helium is used in lighter than air balloons and while heavier than hydrogen, is far safer since helium does not burn. Speaking after breathing an atmosphere rich in helium results in a squeaky voice (don't try it!).


Here is a brief summary of the isolation of helium.

There is very little helium on earth as nearly all present during and immediately after the earth's formation has long since been lost as it is so light. Just about all the helium remaining on the planet is the result of radioactive decay.

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What's in a name?

For the Greek god of the sun, Helius.

Say what?

Helium is pronounced as HEE-lee-em.

History and Uses:

Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, was discovered on the sun before it was found on the earth. Pierre-Jules-César Janssen, a French astronomer, noticed a yellow line in the sun's spectrum while studying a total solar eclipse in 1868. Sir Norman Lockyer, an English astronomer, realized that this line, with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers, could not be produced by any element known at the time. It was hypothesized that a new element on the sun was responsible for this mysterious yellow emission. This unknown element was named helium by Lockyer.

The hunt to find helium on earth ended in 1895. Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, conducted an experiment with a mineral containing uranium called clevite. He exposed the clevite to mineral acids and collected the gases that were produced. He then sent a sample of these gases to two scientists, Lockyer and Sir William Crookes, who were able to identify the helium within it. Two Swedish chemists, Nils Langlet and Per Theodor Cleve, independently found helium in clevite at about the same time as Ramsay.

Helium makes up about 0.0005% of the earth's atmosphere. This trace amount of helium is not gravitationally bound to the earth and is constantly lost to space. The earth's atmospheric helium is replaced by the decay of radioactive elements in the earth's crust. Alpha decay, one type of radioactive decay, produces particles called alpha particles. An alpha particle can become a helium atom once it captures two electrons from its surroundings. This newly formed helium can eventually work its way to the atmosphere through cracks in the crust.

Helium is commercially recovered from natural gas deposits, mostly from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Helium gas is used to inflate blimps, scientific balloons and party balloons. It is used as an inert shield for arc welding, to pressurize the fuel tanks of liquid fueled rockets and in supersonic windtunnels. Helium is combined with oxygen to create a nitrogen free atmosphere for deep sea divers so that they will not suffer from a condition known as nitrogen narcosis. Liquid helium is an important cryogenic material and is used to study superconductivity and to create superconductive magnets. The Department of Energy's Jefferson Lab uses large amounts of liquid helium to operate its superconductive electron accelerator.

Helium is an inert gas and does not easily combine with other elements. There are no known compounds that contain helium, although attempts are being made to produce helium diflouride (HeF2).

Estimated Crustal Abundance:

8×10-3 milligrams per kilogram

Estimated Oceanic Abundance:

7×10-6 milligrams per liter

Number of Stable Isotopes:


(View all isotope data)

Ionization Energy:

24.587 eV

Oxidation State:


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Helium is extensively used for filling balloons as it is a much safer gas than hydrogen. One of the recent largest uses for helium has been for pressuring liquid fuel rockets. A Saturn booster, like the type used on the Apollo lunar missions, required about 13 million ft3 of helium for a firing, plus more for checkouts.

Liquid helium's use in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) continues to increase as the medical profession accepts and develops new uses for the equipment. This equipment has eliminated some need for exploratory surgery by accurately diagnosing patients. Another medical application uses MRE to determine (by blood analysis) whether a patient has any form of cancer.

Helium is also being used to advertise on blimps for various companies, including Goodyear. Other lifting gas applications are being developed by the Navy and Air Force to detect low-flying cruise missiles. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Agency is using radar-equipped blimps to detect drug smugglers along the United States boarders. In addition, NASA is currently using helium-filled balloons to sample the atmosphere in Antarctica to determine what is depleting the ozone layer.


Materials which become super conductive at higher temperatures than the boiling point of helium could have a major impact on the demand for helium. These less costly refrigerant materials could replace the present need to cool superconductive materials to the boiling point of helium.

Title Picture: Diagrammatic helium atom. There are only two electrons orbiting helium's nucleus.

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