Exploring the Origins and Properties of Helium

Helium is a fascinating element with unique properties that make it essential to many industries. From the balloons that delight children to the high-tech medical imaging machines used in hospitals, helium’s versatility knows no bounds. However, despite its widespread use, few people understand where helium comes from or how it is produced. This blog post will explore the origins and properties of this noble gas, revealing the methods used to extract and separate it from natural sources. We’ll also discuss the importance of helium in various applications, from cooling systems to magnetic resonance imaging. By the end of this post, you’ll have a deeper understanding of this intriguing element and its role in our world.

What is helium?

Basic properties of helium

Basic Properties of Helium

Helium is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless noble gas that has the lowest boiling and melting points among all the elements. It is the second lightest element in the periodic table with an atomic number of 2 and symbol He.


The density of helium is much lower than that of air, which is what makes it ideal for use in balloons. In fact, helium has a density of only 0.1785 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm³) at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, while air has a density of approximately 1.225 g/cm³ under the same conditions. This means that helium is approximately seven times less dense than air.

Boiling Point

Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element, at -268.9°C or -452°F, which is just a few degrees above absolute zero (-273.15°C). The extremely low boiling point of helium allows it to be used as a coolant in various scientific and industrial applications, such as in nuclear reactors and MRI machines.

Melting Point

Like its boiling point, helium’s melting point is also one of the lowest among all the elements. Its melting point is -272.2°C or -458°F, which is just a few degrees lower than its boiling point. This means that helium remains in its liquid form even at extremely low temperatures.

In summary, helium has unique properties that make it an important element in various fields. Its low density, boiling point and melting point make it an ideal coolant, lifting gas, and medical gas. Understanding these basic properties of helium is essential in order to appreciate its importance in various industries.

Applications of helium

Applications of Helium

Helium, the second lightest element, has numerous applications in different fields due to its unique properties. In this section, we’ll explore some of the most common applications of helium.


One of the most popular uses of helium is in balloons. Due to its low density, helium is used as a lifting gas in balloons and blimps. It’s safer than hydrogen, which was used previously but is highly flammable. The use of helium in balloons makes them more stable and allows them to fly for longer periods without the risk of combustion.

MRI Machines

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines are used for medical imaging and diagnosis. Helium is used to cool down the superconducting magnets in these machines to temperatures close to absolute zero (-273°C), allowing them to function at peak efficiency. Without helium, the magnets would overheat and become damaged, rendering the MRI machine useless.


In welding, helium is used as a shielding gas to protect the welding area from contamination by atmospheric gases like nitrogen and oxygen. Helium is preferred to other noble gases due to its higher thermal conductivity, which means it can transfer heat more efficiently. This results in better weld quality and faster production speeds.


Helium is also used in aircraft as a safety measure. In blimps and airships, helium is used as a lifting gas, providing buoyancy and stability. In addition, helium is used in pressure gauges and other instruments that require precision measurement in high-altitude conditions.

Overall, helium’s unique properties make it a valuable resource with many applications across various industries. Its importance cannot be overstated, and research is ongoing to find new ways to utilize this noble gas.

Where does helium come from?

Natural sources of helium

Natural Sources of Helium

Helium is the second lightest element in the universe and has an atomic number of 2. Despite being one of the most abundant elements in the universe, it is actually quite rare on Earth. So where does this elusive gas come from and how can we find it?

One of the main natural sources of helium is underground reservoirs. These reservoirs are usually found in areas where natural gas is also present because helium is often produced as a byproduct of natural gas production. In fact, up to 7% of natural gas in some fields is composed of helium.

Fossil fuels are also a source of helium. Coal, oil, and natural gas all contain trace amounts of helium that were formed over millions of years through the radioactive decay of elements like uranium and thorium.

The United States is currently the largest producer of helium in the world, with most of its supply coming from underground reservoirs in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Other countries such as Russia, Algeria, and Qatar also have significant reserves of helium.

One interesting example of natural helium production is the East African Rift System, a geological zone stretching from Mozambique to Djibouti. In this region, volcanic activity releases helium from the earth’s mantle, allowing for natural concentrations of helium in the atmosphere.

Overall, natural sources of helium are limited and finding new sources can be a challenging and costly process. This is why helium is considered a non-renewable resource and conservation efforts are important to ensure its availability for future generations.

Production of helium

Production of Helium

Helium is a scarce resource that is extracted from natural gas fields and produced through liquefaction and separation processes. In this section, we will explore the different methods used in helium production.


Helium is usually found in small amounts in natural gas deposits, where it is trapped underground. To extract helium from natural gas, the gas is first drilled and brought to the surface. The natural gas is then processed to remove impurities such as water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. After that, the natural gas is cooled down to low temperatures to separate the helium from other gases.


Once the helium has been separated from the natural gas, it is liquefied by cooling it down to extremely low temperatures. Liquified helium has a boiling point of -452°F (-268.9°C) and is stored in containers designed to maintain its low temperature.

Liquification allows for easier transportation of helium over long distances, as the gas takes up less space when it is in liquid form. It also makes it easier to store and use in specialized applications that require large quantities of helium.


The final step in helium production involves separating the liquefied helium into different grades based on their purity levels. This is done using a process called distillation, which takes advantage of the differences between the boiling points of helium and other gases.

During distillation, the liquified helium is heated up until it begins to evaporate. The different gases present in the mixture vaporize at different rates, allowing for the separation of helium from other gases. This process can be repeated several times to achieve higher levels of purity.

In conclusion, the production of helium is a complex process that involves multiple steps, including extraction, liquefaction, and separation. While helium is often taken for granted, it is an essential resource with many important uses in industries such as healthcare, scientific research, and manufacturing.

Alpha decay and helium production

Alpha decay is a natural process that occurs within certain radioactive isotopes, including uranium. During alpha decay, an alpha particle consisting of two protons and two neutrons is emitted from the nucleus of the atom. This process can also result in the production of helium atoms.

One of the most common sources of helium production through alpha decay is radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is produced by the decay of uranium in the soil. As radon decays, it emits alpha particles which can combine with other elements to produce helium.

The production of helium through alpha decay has several important implications. For one, it provides a natural source of helium which can be extracted and used for various applications, such as cooling and superconductivity.

However, it’s important to note that the process of alpha decay can also have negative consequences, particularly when it comes to exposure to radon gas. Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer and can accumulate in homes and buildings, particularly those with poor ventilation.

To mitigate the risks associated with radon exposure, it’s important to regularly test homes and buildings for radon levels and take steps to reduce exposure if necessary.

Overall, while alpha decay and the production of helium may seem like obscure scientific concepts, they have important implications for our understanding of the natural world and our ability to harness its resources safely and responsibly.

Why is helium so important?

Cooling applications for helium

Cooling applications for helium have become increasingly important in recent years, especially in the field of cryogenics. Helium is often used as a cooling agent for materials and devices that need to be kept at extremely low temperatures. One of the main reasons why helium is such an effective coolant is because it has a very low boiling point. At atmospheric pressure, helium only boils at a temperature of 4.2 Kelvin (-268.8°C), which makes it ideal for cooling objects down to near absolute zero.

One fascinating property of helium when it’s cooled to extremely low temperatures is superfluidity. When helium is cooled below 2.17 Kelvin, it becomes a superfluid, which means that it can flow with zero viscosity. This unique property has led to some interesting discoveries, including the observation of quantized vortices in superfluid helium.

Cryogenics research has also led to the development of new technologies that use helium as a coolant. For example, in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, liquid helium is used to cool down the superconducting magnets that generate the strong magnetic fields required for imaging. Without helium cooling, these magnets would quickly heat up and lose their superconducting properties.

Another example of cooling applications for helium is in particle accelerators. These machines use high-energy beams of particles to study the fundamental nature of matter. However, the intense energy generated by these beams causes the accelerator components to heat up. By using helium cooling, researchers can ensure that the temperature stays low enough to prevent damage to the equipment.

In conclusion, helium’s low boiling point and unique properties make it an excellent coolant for a wide range of applications. From MRI machines to particle accelerators, helium plays a critical role in cooling down the materials and devices that enable cutting-edge research. Cryogenics research will undoubtedly continue to uncover new uses for this versatile noble gas in the years to come.

Superconductivity and helium

Superconductivity is an intriguing phenomenon that has fascinated scientists for decades. It describes the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity with zero resistance when cooled below a certain critical temperature, known as the superconducting transition temperature (Tc). One such material is helium, which exhibits superconductivity at extremely low temperatures, making it an ideal coolant for a wide range of applications.

One of the most common uses of superconductivity and helium is in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. These devices use powerful magnets to create detailed images of the body’s internal structures, but generate a lot of heat in the process. To prevent overheating, the magnets must be cooled to extremely low temperatures using liquid helium, which can reach temperatures as low as -269°C (-452°F). As a result, MRI machines require large amounts of helium to function properly, making it a crucial component of this life-saving technology.

Another area where superconductivity and helium are used extensively is in particle accelerators. These devices are used to study the fundamental building blocks of matter by accelerating particles to nearly the speed of light and smashing them together. The resulting collisions can reveal new insights into the nature of the universe, but also generate significant amounts of heat. To keep the temperature under control, particle accelerators use superconducting magnets cooled with liquid helium. Without this cooling system, particle accelerators would quickly overheat and become unusable.

In addition to these practical applications, superconductivity and helium have also led to numerous scientific discoveries and advances. For example, the discovery of superconductivity in helium-3 in 1971 earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Physics. Since then, researchers have continued to explore the properties of superconductivity and helium, leading to new insights into quantum mechanics and condensed matter physics.

Overall, the combination of superconductivity and helium represents a fascinating area of research with numerous practical applications. From MRI machines to particle accelerators and beyond, the use of these technologies has revolutionized our understanding of the world around us and opened up new avenues for scientific discovery.

Medical applications of helium

Medical Applications of Helium

Helium has a wide range of medical applications, including its use in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and medical lasers. MRI scans are used to diagnose various conditions such as cancer, neurological disorders, and joint injuries. Helium’s low boiling point and ability to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI machines makes it an essential component in these medical devices.

Medical lasers also rely on helium for their operation. Helium is often used in gas lasers, which are commonly used in dermatology and ophthalmology. In dermatology, helium-neon lasers are used to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, vitiligo, and acne scarring. In ophthalmology, carbon dioxide lasers that utilize helium as a buffer gas are used in surgeries such as glaucoma treatment and cataract removal.

In addition to these applications, helium is also used in respiratory therapy. Heliox, a mixture of helium and oxygen, is used as a treatment for patients with respiratory distress, such as those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma. The low density of helium allows it to flow through airways more easily, improving breathing efficiency and reducing the workload on the lungs.

Overall, helium plays a critical role in various medical applications, from diagnostic tools such as MRI machines to therapeutic treatments like medical lasers and respiratory therapy. Its unique properties make it a valuable resource in the field of medicine, providing doctors and patients with innovative solutions for a variety of medical conditions.
The story of where helium comes from is a fascinating one that highlights the complex interplay between natural processes and human ingenuity. From its discovery as an unknown element to its crucial role in modern technologies like MRI machines and particle accelerators, helium has captured the imagination of scientists and engineers for over a century. Today, we know that helium is produced deep within the Earth’s crust by the decay of uranium and other radioactive isotopes, and that it can be extracted from natural gas deposits using specialized techniques. However, despite its ubiquity in the universe, helium remains a scarce resource on Earth, and its importance to many critical industries underscores the need for careful management and conservation. As we continue to explore the origins and properties of this noble gas, we can only hope that our understanding of its unique qualities will help us unlock even more exciting applications in the years to come.

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