Helium is an important industry in the United States. So much so an important part of the economy of the United States that special legislation was passed in 1996 protecting its use and assuring it would be available as needed. (Helium Privatization Act, October 9, 1996.) Helium, in the air, in the sun and in some rocks, is extracted for commercial purposes from the natural use of gas and the large processing plants are alongside oil and gas fields such as those in Texas.
It is used and is absolutely necessary as a coolant in medical imaging systems such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and similar medical scanning devices. Since helium has the lowest freezing temperature and the lowest heating temperature of all elements, it is the ideal choice of a coolant for extremely hot X-rays.
It is these newer x-rays that have lower levels of interference from environmental sources that produce such magnificent pictures that make them such a ‘hot’ item in medical imaging. The round elongated tub like machine(and other shaped machines) has coils surrounding and enveloping the part or whole of the human anatomy that is placed inside to be photographed by computers. The rays inside the coils emitting the picture are cooled by liquid helium. This is a general idea of what takes place during an imaging session.
Nitrogen is also used as a coolant and is a much less expensive chemical. It is used in imaging as a first coolant since helium is too expensive to be used for the whole process of getting the imaging machines to their desired level of coolness.
Other uses for helium in US industries are in welding. Here too, extreme heat is necessary to melt metal and helium is used as a coolant. Balloons are filled with helium which is safer to use than hydrogen. Deep sea diving equipment makes use of helium. This somehow has a function in equalization of air pressure.
Helium is used in superconductor plants and in the air space industry. In fact, it is the discovery of the qualities of helium that make it so useful in these recent futuristic industries. Without it, they would not have been possible.
Helium, with the symbol He is the second lightest gas known. It is colorless, tasteless, nonflammable and was first seen as a yellow line alongside the yellow line of sodium D in the solar spectrum by Janssen, a French Astrologer. This first sighting took place during a solar eclipse in India in 1868.
It was named helium by Sir Norman Lockyer (1836-1920) an English Astronomer; Helios is the Greek name for the sun. For years helium was that mysterious element of the sun, but whether it was to be found on earth was still an unanswered question. In 1894, another Englishman, Sir William Ramsey, while working with a uranium mineral, cleveite, discovered it did exist in some geological situations.
Possibly, helium will teach us to be more energy efficient when we discover how to make even better use of it. One way is obvious: it will be used as a coolant for the newer hoped for nuclear fusion plants. These promise less environmental damage than the gases now being emitted from our present electrical conversion systems.