The Discoverer of Helium

Helium, He, is the second most abundant element in the universe. It is believed to have been created by the Big Bang, and it also the second lightest element (Hydrogen is the lightest). Helium is used all around you, whether it be the oxygen tanks used for scuba diving or in the balloons you loved to suck to have a squeaky voice, helium’s uses are limitless.

The first traces of Helium were discovered in 1866 when French astronomer Pierre Janssen was studying a chronometer of the sun during a solar eclipse. It was originally believed to be traces of Sodium until later that year when Norman Lockyer saw similar traces of the yellow line and believed it to be an element that was unknown to earth. Edward Frankland named it Helium after the Greek g-d Helios, the sun g-d.

The first traces of Helium on earth occured with William Ramsey treated cleavite with mineral acids while looking for argon in 1895. He found the same yellow line as discovered by Janssen and Lockyer so he had Lockyer look at it and they came to the conclusion that it was traces of Helium.

In the early 1900s, Thomas Royds and Ernest Rutherford proved that alpha particles were actually helium nuclei by allowing them to penetrate the thin glass wall of a evacuated tube, then creating a discharge in the tube to study the spectra of the new gas inside. In 1908, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes first liquefied Helium by cooling the gas to less than one kelvin. Kamerlingh Onnes tried to solidify it but discovered that it was impossible to because Helium does not have a triple point temperature (the point where the solid, liquid and gas phases are at equilibrium). It was finally solidified 18 years later when one of Kamerlingh Onnes’ students, Willem Hendrik Keesom by adding pressure to it.

Today, Helium has many uses. Airships and balloons use Helium instead of Hydrogen because it is almost as buoyant and not flammable. This makes it much safer to use in objects such as blimps. Liquid helium is used to cool metals to the extremely low temperatures required for processes such as superconducting magnets and magnetic resonance imaging. Helium is also used to displace fuel and oxidizers and to condense hydrogen and oxygen into rocket fuel.

Helium is used as a tracer gas to detect leaks in airtight equipment such as valves because it diffuses through solids three times faster than air. This can prevent dangerous substances from leaking into the environment.