Helium, the second element in the periodic table also the second lightest element and the second most common in the universe, has a number of uses. Despite being common in the universe Earth’s atmosphere contains only 0.0005% of the element. Commercial supplies of the helium come from underground gas fields with most of the world’s supply coming from fields in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The use most people know of is as a lighter than air lifting gas, as it is much safer than the lighter but explosive gas hydrogen. As such, it fills many a gift balloon for birthdays and similar celebrations. It also fills advertising blimps and airships. NASA uses the gas to fill the balloons taking instruments into the upper atmosphere where they monitor the thickness of ice in the Polar Regions. The Drug Enforcement Agency is using radar-equipped blimps to detect drug smuggling into the United States. Navy and Air Force scientists are researching its use for carrying equipment in to the sky to detect in-coming cruise missiles.
NASA also uses the gas to pressurize the liquid fuel boosters rockets used to launch their spacecraft.
Helium is an inert gas and provides a protective atmosphere for a number of manufacturing processes. A helium atmosphere protects growing silicon and germanium crystals. It also protects the elements titanium and zirconium from atmospheric contamination during their production. Arc welding also uses a protective atmosphere of helium.
At 0.95 K (minus 272.2 C, minus 458.0 F), helium has the lowest boiling point of any element. This temperature is close to absolute zero. This makes liquid helium invaluable in the field of cryogenic research. Liquid helium also finds a use in research into superconductivity and preparing superconductive magnets. A growing use of liquid helium is in the running of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners used for diagnostic purposes in hospitals. Some nuclear reactors use helium as a coolant.
Deep sea divers suffer from a condition called nitrogen narcosis if they use tanks containing normal pressurized air at depths. Also known as rapture of the deep it is a particular problem during dives to depths below 30 meters (100 feet) when it manifest as a change in the diver’s mental status. It is reversible as the diver surfaces. By filling their tanks with a mixture of oxygen and helium, divers avoid this problem.
Aviation researchers use helium as a safe gas in the running of supersonic wind tunnels.
Los Alamos National Laboratory Chemistry Division
Jefferson Laboratories Science Education website