Helium is usually known for its party tricks. It gives buoyancy to balloons and a cartoon-like squeak to voices. But in the science world, the element helium (He) does so much more. From supporting lifesaving technologies to helping astronauts get into space, this noble gas is essential inside and outside the lab.
There’s a lot more to this element, so here are a few facts to get you started:
1. It’s a seriously abundant element…
As one of the most abundant elements in the universe – clocking in as the second-most-widespread element on Earth – helium gets around. It forms about 23% of all matter.
2.…but always keeps things light.
Helium is so light that it actually escapes Earth’s gravitational pull. That’s why it makes balloons float and always gets invited to parties.
3. It’s named for a god.
When scientists were observing a solar eclipse in 1868, they noticed a yellow wavelength coming off the sun. Inspired, they named the newly discovered element “helium” after the Greek sun god Helios. And the rest, as they say, is history.
4. What’s cooler than cool? Liquid helium.
Helium has the lowest boiling point of any element, a chilly -452° Fahrenheit (-268.9° Celsius). It also doesn’t freeze at atmospheric pressure, meaning it won’t freeze unless super pressurized. And at 300 times less viscous than water, it makes for a fantastic free-flowing coolant.
5. Technology just wants to bathe in it.
Since it’s such a strong coolant, MRI machines, particle colliders and microchips all take helium dips to stay in peak condition. The superconducting magnets in medical devices and other chemistry equipment, which get incredibly hot, require liquid helium to maintain their temperature and keep saving lives.
6. 3, 2, 1…blastoff!
Not only is helium abundant in space – it also helps rockets launch safely. The element pumps out dangerous bubbles that may have formed in rocket fuels, paving the way for a successful flight.
7. Helium and natural gas: A two-for-one special.
Though it’s all around us, helium is difficult (and expensive) to pull out of the air – the particles are so light and fine, they tend to float away. Thankfully, helium is also present in natural gas reservoirs, which means that engineers can recover the element when processing natural gas.
8. Move over Italy, helium is the new boot.
During the 20th century, most of the helium production in the U.S. took place across a boot-shaped swath of land along the Midwest that spanned fields in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
9. But really, Wyoming is the center of it all.
In LaBarge, Wyoming, ExxonMobil produces about 25% of the world’s helium supply. In fact, the company is the biggest producer of helium in the United States, processing enough to fill 14 million balloons daily and four to five billion balloons per year. Of course, that’s not what it’s all used for. It’s mainly used in science labs, space expeditions and other essential tasks.