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Jigar Patel

Helium was not first discovered on Earth, but was detected on the Sun. It manifested itself as a yellow line on a spectral reading of sunlight during a solar eclipse 1868. Although, Jules Janssen and Norman Lockyer were accredited with detecting the element first, it was not formally discovered until two Swedish chemists in 1895 observed helium emanating from cleveite, a uranium ore. Alpha decay of the uranium forms helium and it is subsequently trapped within the mineral. Albeit, Heliums heritage and namesake are linked with the Sun, where it was first detected. It is no wonder Helium is named after the Greek god of the Sun, Helios. As its stellar etymology suggests, Helium truly has a place amongst the stars. Helium has its origins in the first 3-20 minutes after the creation of the Universe as described by the Big Bang nucleosynthesis theory. After 20 minutes, the temperature and density of the Universe were too cool for nuclear fusion whereas before 3 minutes the Universe was too hot. For helium-4 to form, deuterium must be an intermediate. This stepping stone delays the production of helium-4 because deuterium is destroyed at any time before 3 minutes after the Big Bang because the temperature is too high at 1 billion Kelvin. Since the Universe cools as it expands, helium-4 can only be made when the Universe is cool enough for the deuterium to form helium-4 and hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur. These conditions are met between 3-20 minutes after the Big Bang. Helium comprises 24% of the elemental mass of the observed Universe, subjugating it only to hydrogen. This percentage stays mostly fixed. Heliums presence has been a valuable test for the Big Bang theory. Stellar nucleosynthesis of helium-4, which occurs within stars by nuclear fusion of hydrogen, could not

account for the 24% alone so the bulk was theorized to have been produced just after the Big Bang. However, for a few years in the 1990s, observations suggested that there was much less than 24% He-4 in the Universe. These observations coupled with the fact the helium-4 is not regularly destroyed (eliminating the notion that the original amount created just after the Big Bang somehow deteriorated) challenged the Big Bang theory. However, later observations confirmed the 24% estimate and the Big Bang theory was redeemed. Now that we know how Helium was created, we can move on to discuss some of Heliums chemical properties. Helium has no taste, color, or smell. Its atomic number is 2 and has an atomic weight of roughly 4.00. It follows neon as the second least reactive noble gas and is the least soluble monatomic gas. Furthermore, helium heats up when freely expanding at room temperature and it remains a liquid as it approaches absolute zero because the zero point energy (the lowest kinetic energy at ground state) of the system is high enough to restrict freezing. Helium has eight isotopes, but only helium-3 and helium-4 are stable, with helium-4 being the most stable with nucleons arranged in complete shells. Since helium-3 is less stable, its production is not favored and it is more rare: for every million helium-4 isotopes there is only one helium-3 isotope in the Earths atmosphere. Helium has many practical purposes because of its various properties, some of which were aforementioned. Liquid helium has a low boiling point and this property is conducive to its application in cryogenics, which accounts for a quarter of the total helium production. For example, the largest single use of liquid helium is to cool superconducting magnets like those in MRI scanners and the Large Hadron Collider. Also, because helium is inert it is used as a protective gas in growing silicon crystals, zirconium/titanium production, and in gas chromatography as a carrier gas. Again, its inertness is harnessed as a shielding gas in arc

welding to void the room of oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor that can jeopardize the strength of a weld. Its inert nature means that it will not react with the molten metal during the welding process. In addition, it has a high ionization energy that requires a higher voltage when welding. Ultimately, this translates to hotter welds that are advantageous when welding copper and magnesium alloys. Nonetheless, it is more expensive than its counterpart argon and requires a high flow rate because of its tendency to rise. This tendency, however, proves a benefit in another application. For example, a popular property of helium is how it is lighter than air. Intuitively, it then became used in balloons and airships. Although hydrogen is 7% more buoyant, it is also extremely flammable as witnessed by the infamous Hindenburg disaster. Thermoacoustic refrigeration uses high amplitude sound waves to pump heat from one place to another. Heliums high heat capacity ratio and high Prandtl number (high thermal diffusivity) make it ideal. Externalities associated with Freon are avoided because inert helium does not deplete the ozone. The list of useful application continues when considering methods of leak detection. Helium diffuses through solids three times faster than air which makes it a great tracer gas. The process usually includes an evacuated chamber that is filled with helium and the object being tested. A helium mass spectrometer, created during the Manhattan Project in WWII, is used to measure the rate at which the helium leaks out. Helium is still being actively researched. Isotopes of helium are being used in current research of superfluids because it can form a Bose-Einstein condensate (cooled atoms with a single quantum state). In its superfluid form (at low temperature/high pressure) it is frictionless with zero viscosity/entropy and is only subject to its own inertia. It has high capillary action and can creep up any material and even flow through the tiny pores of glass. The 30-nm thick film that creeps up any material is called the Rollins film. All the molecules of the superfluid helium-

4 are at the same exact temperature/state and, therefore, at 2.17 K the fluid is motionless. Helium-3 requires much colder temperatures (1 mK in zero magnetic field) to become a superfluid because its fermions need to pair with each other to form a boson whereas helium-4 is already a boson by virtue of its zero spin. Above their respective thresholds, the helium isotopes bubble vigorously since their boiling points are at 4.2 K (helium-4) and 3.2 K (helium-3). Helium is used for deep commercial diving. Divers must breathe a unique blend of gases like trimix when diving deep. Trimix consists of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen. There are both advantages and disadvantages of using helium in the mix. One benefit is that it lowers the proportion of oxygen/nitrogen below that of air so that breathing is safer at low depths. Breathing resistance is reduced because of the helium and oxygen toxicity is curbed because the oxygen is displaced by the helium. Furthermore, because of its low atomic weight it enters bodily tissues faster at high pressures and is flushed out faster at lower pressures than nitrogen. However, helium is capable of conducting heat 600% faster than air so it does not make a good insulator. If it were used to inflate drysuits, the chance of hypothermia would be greater. Argon is employed instead because air is a 50% faster heat conductor. Also, during fast ascents, helium can cause decompression sickness because when the partial pressure of helium in the diver is much higher than the ambient pressure bubbles form that can damage tissue. If the diver goes deeper than 500 feet with a heliox (only oxygen and helium) tank, helium tremors or highpressure nervous syndrome is well documented. As a result of its many applications, there is currently a shortage of Helium isotope. Lowtemperature physicists, the U.S. government, oil companies, and MRI operators are all competing for helium-3. Helium-3 is a natural byproduct of digging for oil and bombs. Helium-3 was priced low because it was considered a waste product of tritium , which is involved in the

process of dismantling hydrogen bombs. As tritium decays it produces helium-3. Consequently, after the Cold War ended and fewer bombs were made and dismantled, the supply of helium-3 went on a considerable decline. The price of helium is directly correlated to this increasing shortage. Helium-3 used to cost $150 per liter but now can cost up to 5,000 per liter, with tremendous price gains within the last decade. Bombarding lithium or boron with protons will yield helium; however, this method is incredibly expensive and not commercially viable. Although engineers are looking for methods of recycling helium-3 and prospectors are looking for alternatives (there is a rich supply on the moon), the practice of inhaling helium-3 before taking an MRI to enhance the clarity of the image is being jeopardized. Furthermore, helium-3 is sensitive to neutrons like those emitted from plutonium. Accordingly, the U.S. government uses 80% of the entire helium-3 supply for detection of nuclear weapons and to prevent nuclear smuggling. This shortage has threatened national security because this program demands 76,000 liters per year and the U.S. government can only procure 8,000 liters per year, especially because Russia has traded exports for their own domestic use. Robert Richardson, a noble laureate for discovering suprafluidity with Helium, heads the conservation movement for helium and he recommends that each helium balloon cost $100 to dissuade popular use of helium. He argues that helium is not selling at market price because the U.S. Congress decided to sell the entire U.S. helium stockpile by 2015 and has therefore flooded the market with inexpensive helium. It is projected that international helium reserves will be exhausted 25 years from now. Despite helium being the second most abundant element in the Universe, it is unfortunate that most of it is not easily available. Although Helium is inert and non-toxic, it can still be dangerous. It is popular for children to breathe in helium from party balloons to change the pitch of their voice, but its

popularity does not testify to its safety. This shift in pitch is attributed to heliums speed of sound being three times that of air, and its low density. Inhaling helium increases the wavelength and pitch of the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract. Parlor tricks aside, inhaling helium also emulates suffocation. Helium inhalation displaces oxygen by creating a diffusion gradient that flushes oxygen out of the body. A person would faint first and resume normal breathing patterns before they died from sucking on a helium balloon for too long, but the real danger is sucking out of a pressurized tank. The high pressure intake could hemorrhage the lungs (barotraumas) or create bubbles in the blood that can cause a stroke once in the brain. Fatalities are reported almost every year.

Works Cited Article(s) from a peer-reviewed journal: Grochala, W. (2009). "On Chemical Bonding Between Helium and Oxygen". Polish Journal of Chemistry 83:8793. Broadhead, Ronald F. (2005). "Helium in New Mexico geology distribution resource demand and exploration possibilities" (PDF). New Mexico Geology 27 (4): 9399. Retrieved 2008-05-22 Daniel V. Schroeder (2000). An Introduction to Thermal Physics. Addison Wesley Longman.p. 141. ISBN 0-201-38027-7. "Helium" (PDF). Mineral Commodity Summaries. U.S. Geological Survey. 2009. pp. 7475. Retrieved 2012-05-23. Unpublished article(s) on the internet: Stewart, Doug. "Discovery of Helium." Chemicool. n. page. Web. 24 May. 2012. <>. Reed, Christina. "The Fallout of a Helium-3 Crisis." Discovery News. (2011):Web. 24 May. 2012. <>. Article(s) from non-scientific newspaper: Wald, Mathew. "Agencies Lack of Coordination Hindered Supply of Crucial Gas, Report Says." New York Times. 4.6 (2011): 3-4. Print. Galbraith, Katie. "Legislation Is Proposed to Extend Helium Sales Deadline." New York Times. 8.1 (2012): 5. Print.