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What is Helium?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 31, 2024
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Helium is a chemical element that occurs in great abundance throughout the universe, although it is not as widely distributed on Earth. It typically takes the form of a gas, and it heads up the list of noble gases in the periodic table of elements. Like other noble gases, helium is extremely stable, and it does not readily form compounds with other elements. There are a number of uses for this gas, and it is widely considered to be a very useful and valuable element.

The atomic number of helium is two, making it the second lightest element. It is identified on the periodic table with the symbol He, and it is the least reactive of the noble gases. As a result, helium is one of the least reactive elements on Earth. Its extreme stability makes it a popular choice for a range of uses in situations where unstable materials are being handled, or where the use of other elements might be dangerous.

The discovery of helium occurred in 1868, when astronomers observed a strange band of light during a solar eclipse. The band of light did not correlate with any known element, and the observers realized that they had identified a new gas, which they called “helium” after the Greek Helios, for “Sun.” Within 30 years, scientists had succeeded in isolating and extracting the gas from the mineral clevite.

Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it can be challenging to find on Earth. It is frequently extracted from natural gas, which can contain the element in concentrations ranging from 2 to 7%. The extremely stable, non-reactive gas became a vital tool during the First World War, when access to helium was highly restricted, and this occurred again during the Second World War. Many of the potential uses of the gas can be military in nature, including use as a non-reactive buffer for arc welding and as a lifting agent for balloons of all sizes. Helium is also used as a supercoolant in scientific experimentation and nuclear reactors.

Pure helium is not toxic, and exposure to the clear, odorless, and tasteless gas should not pose a health risk. However, excessive inhalation of the gas can be dangerous, as it will act as an asphyxiate. In addition, when inhaled directly from a pressurized tank, it may cause lung damage, and commercial helium such as that found in party balloons may be contaminated with other substances that are not healthy to inhale.

AllTheScience is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllTheScience researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon298686 — On Oct 21, 2012

What are helium's strengths?

By anon296854 — On Oct 13, 2012

Why does helium make the objects that it's inflated in float, and regular air doesn't?

By anon245695 — On Feb 06, 2012

What history has helium been in?

By anon83370 — On May 10, 2010

what happens to helium when its heated up by radiation (Sun)?

By anon76989 — On Apr 12, 2010

How much helium does it take to lift 400 pounds?

By anon74414 — On Apr 02, 2010

What is helium and is it a gas at room temperature!? Please answer ASAP as I need help in it ASAP

By anon73934 — On Mar 30, 2010

i don't know anything about helium. i want to know a lot about that.

By anon69886 — On Mar 10, 2010

i need to know what atoms are in helium and i need to know by next thursday so please answer my question fast!

By anon69219 — On Mar 06, 2010

I need to know if helium is dangerous for my homework so can you please help me out!

By anon50133 — On Oct 26, 2009

i need to know about helium as well, now! Help!

By anon46164 — On Sep 23, 2009

i need helium for homework. can anyone tell me what it is?

By anon37173 — On Jul 17, 2009

"what can helium be used for? i need to know its for my home work and i`ve only got 5 days left to do it and i`m slow at doing homework and i always forget to do it, so please give me the answer! "

Well, first, don't be "slow at doing homework". Otherwise, deal with the bad grade. Second, learn how to write properly. Your grammar and spelling are atrocious. Third, *do your own flippin' work*!!!

Hope those suggestions helped.

By anon20349 — On Oct 29, 2008

Helium can be used to purge liquid hydrogen, because it is the only gas that will not turn to a liquid or solid at the extreme cold of liquid hydrogen, therefore avoiding icing or contamination of the liquid hydrogen in pipe lines that would occur if nitrogen were used.

By anon14508 — On Jun 18, 2008

It can be used for blowing up balloons and it is used in the army it once acted in the 2 world wars which helped us win both times.

By anon11390 — On Apr 15, 2008

what can helium be used for?

i need to know its for my home work and i`ve only got 5 days left to do it and i`m slow at doing homework and i always forget to do it

so please give me the answer!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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