While helium may be a flashy line of designer eyeglass frames, it is also the second most abundant element in the known Universe. Discovered in 1868 and named for the Greek god Helios, helium (He) is the second element listed on the Periodic Table of the Elements. While we use it to inflate party balloons and for deep sea diving events, not many people know where the element comes from.
What is Helium, Really?
Helium is one of the Noble gases and one of the lightest elements known to man. It is stable and does not readily form compounds with other elements. Colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert and monatomic, it exists primarily as a gas and makes up about 24% of the Universe.
First observed in the spectral images of solar eclipses by French scientist, P.J.C. Janssen, Helium was eventually discovered on planet Earth and isolated by Nobel Laureate Sir William Ramsay, whose work helped clear up missing links on Mendelev’s Periodic Table of the Elements.
Where Did Helium Come From?
Many believe that helium was created in the first few minutes the Universe was created. Considered confirmation of the Big Bang Theory, nucleosynthesis is the process by which helium came into being. In the super high temperatures that resulted from the Big Bang, matter dissociated and became ionized. The result were the lighter and more abundant elements in the Universe, including hydrogen. As chemical and atomic reactions occurred in the formation of stars, the heavier elements resulted.
How is Helium Produced?
Helium is created in space through the chemical and atomic reactions in stars. Fusion of hydrogen into helium creates the power we know as the atomic bomb.
On Earth, it exists in the atmosphere, seawater, in volcanic gas, mineral springs and meteoric iron. While it occurs naturally, it is extracted from natural gas and from radioactive elements.
In 1903, large reserves of helium were found in the natural gas fields in Texas which has become the largest supplier of the elemental gas. Natural gas is made up of 7% helium. In producing helium from natural gas, companies use a process called fractional distillation. Since helium has such a low boiling point, the natural gas is heated until the molecules evaporate out. Another method would be to cool natural gas, at which point the natural gas liquefies and helium remains.
Helium is also the product of radioactive decay as Ramsay and others discovered when studying cleveite, a mineral containing uranium. As less stable elements spontaneously break down over time, protons and electrons are emitted creating new elements. Helium is one of the results of these emissions. Helium is found in large amounts in minerals of thorium and uranium.
A non-renewable resource, helium is a curious element with unique properties and uses. It has practical and important uses for air balloons, deep diving apparatus, cryogenics, welding, and cooling systems. The world supply of helium is depleting rapidly and time will tell how scientists and industrialists will be able to conserve this irreplaceable resource.