Helium is a chemical element. It has the chemical symbol He, atomic number 2, and atomic weight of about 4.002602. There are 9 isotopes of helium, only two of which are stable. These are 3He and 4He. 4He is by far the most common isotope.
Helium is called a noble gas, because it does not regularly mix with other chemicals and form new compounds. It has the lowest boiling point of all the elements. It is the second most common element in the universe, after hydrogen, and has no color or smell. However, helium has a red-orange glow when placed in an electric field. Helium does not usually react with anything else. Astronomers detected the presence of helium in 1868, when its spectrum was identified in light from the Sun prior to its discovery on Earth. Based on this location, its name was derived from the Greek word for Sun, helios.
Helium is used to fill balloons and airships because it is lighter than air, and does not burn or react, meaning it is normally safe for using it in that way. It is also used in some kinds of light bulbs. People also breathe it in to make their voices sound higher than they normally do as a joke, but this is extremely dangerous as if they breathe in too much, it can kill them as they are not breathing normal air. Breathing too much helium can also cause long-term effects to vocal cords.
It can be created through the process of nuclear fusion in the sun. During this process, four Hydrogen atoms are fused together to form one helium atom.
Helium has become a rare gas. If it gets free into the air it leaves the planet. Unlike hydrogen, which reacts with oxygen to form water, helium is not reactive. It stays as a gas. For many years the USA kept a storage tank filled with helium which came naturally from the great plains area. The story of this supply is very complicated. At present, more helium is supplied by Qatar than by the USA.
Several research organisations have released statements on the scarcity and conservation of helium. These organisations released policy recommendations as early as 1995 and as late as 2016 urging the United States government to store and conserve helium because of the natural limits to the helium supply and the unique nature of the element. For researchers, helium is irreplaceable because it is essential for producing very low temperatures.
- American Physical Society (1995). “National Policy”. https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/95_3.cfm
- Epple, Dennis (1982). "The Helium Storage Controversy: Modeling Natural Resource Supply: The complex issue of helium storage provides a case study of the difficult decisions involved in using natural resources". American Scientist.