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International Heat Transfer Conference Digital Library International Centre for Heat and Mass Transfer Digital Library Begell House Journals Annual Review of Heat Transfer


DOI: 10.1615/AtoZ.h.helium

Helium – (Gr. helios, the sun), He; atomic weight 4.00260; atomic number 2; melting point below – 272.2°C (26atm); boiling point – 268.934°C; density 0.1785 g/1 (0°C, 1 atm); liquid density 7.62 lb/ft3 at boiling point; valence usually 0.

Evidence of the existence of helium was first obtained by Janssen during the solar eclipse of 1868 when he detected a new line in the solar spectrum; Lockyer and Frankland suggested the name helium for the new element; in 1895, Ramsay discovered helium in the uranium mineral clevite, and it was independently discovered in clevite by the Swedish chemists Cleve and Langlet about the same time. Rutherford and Royds in 1907 demonstrated that the particles are helium nuclei.

Except for hydrogen, helium is the most abundant element found throughout the universe. It has been detected spectroscopically in great abundance, especially in the hotter stars, and it is an important component in both the proton-proton reaction and the carbon cycle, which account for the energy of the sun and stars. The fusion of hydrogen into helium provides the energy of the hydrogen bomb.

The helium content of the atmosphere is about 1 part in 200,000. While it is present in various radioactive minerals as a decay product, the bulk of the world's supply is obtained from wells, for example, in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Swift River, Saskatchewan.

Helium has the lowest melting point of any element and has found wide use in cryogenic research, as its boiling point is close to absolute zero. Its use in the study of superconductivity is vital. Using liquid helium, Kurti and co-workers, and others, have succeeded in obtaining temperatures of the few microdegrees K by the adiabatic demagnetization of copper nuclei, starting from about 0.01 K.

Five isotopes of helium are known. Liquid helium (He4) exists in two forms: He4 I and He4 II, with a sharp transition point at 2.174 K (3.83 cm Hg). He4 I (above this temperature) is a normal liquid, but He4 II (below it) is unlike any other known substance. It expands on cooling; its conductivity for heat is enormous; and neither its heat conduction nor viscosity obeys normal rules. It has other peculiar properties. Helium is the only liquid that cannot be solidified by lowering the temperature. It remains liquid down to absolute zero at ordinary pressures, but it can readily be solidified by increasing the pressure. Solid He3 and He4 are unusual in that both can readily be changed in volume by more than 30% by application of pressure. The specific heat of helium gas is unusually high. The density of helium vapor at the normal boiling point is also very high, with the vapor expanding greatly when heated to room temperature. Containers filled with helium gas at 5 to 10° K should be treated as though they contained liquid helium due to the large increase in pressure resulting from warming the gas to room temperature.

While helium normally has a 0 valence, it seems to have a weak tendency to combine with certain other elements. Means of preparing helium difluoride have been studied, and species such as HeNe and the molecular ions He+ and He++ have been investigated. Helium is widely used as an inert gas shield for arc welding; as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, and in titanium and zirconium production; as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors, and as a gas for supersonic wind tunnels. A mixture of 80% helium and 20% oxygen is used as an artificial atmosphere for divers and others working under pressure. Helium is extensively used for filling balloons as it is a much safer gas than hydrogen. While its density is almost twice that of hydrogen, it has about 98% of the lifting power of hydrogen. At sea level, 1000 ft3 of helium lifts 68.5 lb.

One of the recent largest uses for helium has been for pressuring liquid fuel rockets. A Saturn booster such as used on the Apollo lunar missions requires about 13 million cubic feet of helium for a firing, plus more for checkouts.

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