Secrets of the Sun

Helium, the Element of Exhiliriation


Exhiliriating! Round and bouncy, balloons, those wistful floating orbs of color and fun, are so often associated with cheer, excitement, and good times.  Originally constructed out of animal intestines, intended as gifts for the Aztec gods, they were further refined by chemist Michael Faraday in 1824 as vessels for holding and studying hydrogen gas; these were the first free floating, lighter than air balloons (S.K.B.). Since then they have evolved into their more iconic commercial forms that we easily recognize today. They are plastered all over greeting cards, ubiquitous at birthday celebrations and graduations, and brought to hospitals to lift the spirits of patients.  They are universal symbols of elation.

 Perhaps that is why, on September 27, 1986, the United Way of Greater Cleveland, in an effort to draw attention to its annual fundraiser, attempted to break the Guinness World Record for most balloons released at once. Thousands of volunteers wore their fingers sore tying balloons they had inflated with helium. (O’Malley) Then, at 1:50 in the afternoon some 1.5 million of the balloons were released from the city center (Arbuckle). It was an extraordinary sight to behold[1], and also a multifaceted disaster; poor weather kept the balloons from gaining much distance. They delayed flights at the airport, inhibited Coast Guard rescues, and wreaked havoc on the surrounding ecosystems.  And on top of it all, the event cost even more money than it raised. (O’Malley) One unheralded failure of the event, looking at those pictures of the day downtown Cleveland’s skyline was awash in small orbs of blue, red, yellow, pink, green and white, was of the wanton expenditure of the volumes of helium gas that each of those balloons contained.

            Colorless, odorless, and extremely inert, helium is perhaps best observed and perhaps most often associated with the colorful rubber balloons that entrap it and give it form.  Having a mass of 0.1785 grams per liter compared to nitrogen’s[2] 1.2506 grams per liter, helium is lighter than air, and when contained in a rubber balloon will float (Brain).  Tied to a string, looped around the finger, that elation of the balloon, gifted by helium, is ours to hold onto— at least for the duration of time before the atoms of helium slip between the atoms of the balloon and escape from our grasp.

            Breaking their rubbery confinement, where do those exhilarated helium atoms depart to? Where do those helium atoms with their two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons go? Helium is, in fact, so light that it can pull out of the Earth’s gravitational field.  So when it leaves our grasp it floats out of the atmosphere, out into space, and is forever gone, carried away on the solar winds (Smith).

Secrets of the Sun

“It is because the secrets of the Sun include the cipher in which the light messages from external Nature in all its vastness are written, that those interested in the “new learning” as the chemistry of space may certainly be considered, are anxious to get at and possess them”

– Norman Lockyer, discoverer of Helium, 1895 (Todd).

            While relatively rare on the planet Earth where it is only the 71st most abundant element out of the nearly 100 naturally occurring elements, in space, at least, helium is not in short supply (Emsley 220).  After hydrogen, helium is the second most abundant element in our universe, where it contributes ten percent of all the nuclei or atoms in existence, making up 24 percent of the total elemental mass of the universe (Emsley 220). Vast amounts of the element were created just after the Big Bang, and it is constantly being produced in stars throughout the Universe where the nuclei of hydrogen atoms fuse together (Challoner).  Vast quantities of energy are released in this fusion reaction, hurtling out from the stars, lighting up space.

            It was in one such star, our own Sun, that helium was first discovered, and for which it was named.  Helios was the Greek god of the sun, and in 1868 British Astronomer Norman Lockyer, along with chemist Edward Frankland observed a previously undetected line is the spectrum of light emanating from the sun. Their prediction of a new element, never before encountered and based solely on their observance of a strong yellow spectral line, was understandably met with some level of skepticism from the scientific community. The same spectral line was quickly observed emanating from other stars and solar nebulae and consensus as to the existence of celestial helium was agreed upon. (Young)

            For the next 14 years, helium was found with great prominence in the night sky, but nowhere on earth.  Then, in 1882, the Italian physicist Luigi Palmieri “announced the existence, in the lava of Vesuvius of a substance giving the spectral line of “helium”” (Recent…). For the first time, helium had been terrestrially observed. However, an understanding of its properties and an experimental collection of useful data in the laboratory would not be achieved until 1895, and even then, only as a happy coincidence.

While in the process of discovering the gaseous element Argon, scientists Lord Rayleigh and Professor Ramsay stumbled upon the helium spectral line.  The two chemists were collecting and separating the gasses released upon treating a rare, uranium-containing mineral known as cleveite with sulfuric acid. (S.F.) They then made observations of the light emitted by the gas when sealed in vacuum tubes and excited by electricity. Their findings, published in the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1895, described the discovery of the unexpected spectral line observed emanating from one of the gasses they had collected:

It is 587.49 millionths of a millimeter [nanometers], and it is exactly coincident with the line D3 in the solar chromosphere, attributed to the solar element which has been named helium”

(Frost 1895)

Shortly thereafter, helium was also found in meteorites, bubbling from springs in Germany’s Black Forest and in the Pyrenees (Frost).  Ramsay’s experiments added to the understanding of helium that it was second only to hydrogen in weight, its density double. But quizzically unlike hydrogen, which combines readily with other elements into molecules and is found abundantly on earth, “helium is extremely rare, and seems, like its associate, argon, to be almost without chemical affinities” (Young). Ramsay predicted some close, and unexplained (at the time) physical relationship between the two, based on their similar chemical and physical properties (Young).  Furthermore, in an address to the Royal Society, Ramsay and Rayleigh connected their findings to what was still one of the great unknown questions of the time:  what mechanism connected the Halogens on the far right of the table with the Alkali metals in the next period.  They inferred that their discovery of extremely inert gasses could imply a valency of zero, and if their atomic weights align, fill the gaps between elements while harmonizing the overall trends in the Periodic Table. (Stokes)

What the two scientists foresaw was helium and argon’s classifications as Noble Gases, which would help evolve an understanding of the atomic structure and fill out the Periodic Table of Elements. Located on the far right of the periodic table, the Noble Gases include Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, and Radon.  Due to their full valence shells, all are extremely inert, unreactive gasses that exist as monatomic elements; disregarding a few exceptions, most do not even bond with their own atoms, let alone atoms of other types[3]. Further experiments with helium around the turn of the 20th century revealed its spectacularly low boiling point of just 4.5° Kelvin[4], so near to absolute zero (where all atomic motion would theoretically cease) that creating the conditions to view the element in its liquid form proved quite the challenge (Liquefaction…).  The rarity of helium gas and the ineffective methods of procuring it remained an obstacle to further study until 1903 when another unexpected discovery would usher in a new era and understanding of helium.


            In May of 1903, outside of Dexter, Kansas, a company prospecting for natural gas thought they had struck it rich when their equipment broke through to a pocket that spewed forth a geyser of gas at an astonishing rate of 9 million cubic feet each day (McCool). Believing their find to be a lucrative source of energy and income, the town was promised a grand celebration full of festivities which would include a giant pillar of flaming gas to “light the entire countryside for a day and night” (McCool).  Much to the crowd’s dismay, when two flaming bales of straw were pushed toward the well to ignite it, nothing happened (Emsley 221).  Perplexingly, the flaming bales were extinguished.

            The disappointment did not linger however, and after analysis of the inert gas from the Dexter well, the University of Kansas found it to contain 1.84% helium. While a small percentage of the overall amount composition (most of the gas was non-combustible nitrogen), it still amounted to an unimaginable wealth of helium in quantities previously not known to exist anywhere else but in the heavens (Cady & McFarland). The association with wealth, however, was not predicated upon helium. While it was a grand scientific discovery, helium reserves[5] deep under the Kansas plains was a financially unexciting one.  In 1906 The Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science described the find:

“Kansas is to be congratulated on the possession of an unlimited and easily available supply of what has been considered a very rare element, a supply which has never been suspected before.  It assures the fact that helium is no longer a rare element, but a very common element, existing in goodly quantity for the uses which are yet to be found for it” (Cady & McFarland). 

Terror from the Sky

            The year 1900 had seen the first flight of the rigid motor powered airship, pioneered by the German Count Zeppelin.  By 1909 pleasure flights on these new Zeppelins were being undertaken, and in the next year the world’s first commercial airship line was shuttling passengers across Germany (Patenaude).  For the Zeppelin, as with many other technological advances of the 20th century, war was the catalyst for advancement. The same would be true for the knowledge and usefulness of helium.     

            On August 24, 1914, under the cloak of night, a lone German Zeppelin flew over the heavily fortified (from the ground) Belgian city of Antwerp. The pilot cut the engines for silence, drifted over the city center, and unleashed ten small bombs onto the city below.  Twelve people were killed, and the modern era of warfare— where devastating indiscriminate violence could strike from above with little or no warning— had begun. (Patenaude)

            For Germany, the Zeppelin provided the means for instilling fear in the populaces of the enemy country, and for the years 1914-1916 there was little ability in Britain to counter the airships and thwart the attacks on her cities.  The tide began to turn, however, when in 1916 Britain developed explosive bullets that took advantage of the Zeppelin’s one main weakness: its use of hydrogen gas as its source of buoyancy (World…).   Hydrogen gas is extraordinarily flammable in the presence of oxygen, and will burn readily once ignited. This is why, upon entering World War I, the United States was tasked by British government with obtaining helium for their balloons (Cady).  While helium has only 92 ½ percent the lifting capacity of hydrogen, it escaped from the airship’s balloon envelope about half as fast as hydrogen, and most importantly, was absolutely inert.  Helium’s use in airships would make them of a far greater value on the battlefield. (Cady) With its vast untapped supply, the US was perfectly situated to supply the war effort. Plants for isolating helium out of natural gas were established and by the next summer were producing enough quantities of helium to assure the supply (Use of…). With the armistice, the era of War Zeppelins was effectively over, but the US now had the means to procure and store a new natural resource.

            It was not until May 6, 1937 that the conclusion of the age of commercial use of airships was secured when Germanys giant passenger airship the Hindenburg spectacularly and very publicly exploded and crashed in a New Jersey field (Grossman). After that disaster, the public lost interest in the mode of travel, and with trans-Atlantic airplane flight just over the horizon, never looked back[6].  Of course, the Hindenburg had been filled with hydrogen gas because of a ban on the export of helium to Germany passed by the United States Congress in 1920 (CIFC).  Had the Hindenburg been filled with helium, the disaster, and the future role of airships may very well have played out differently. Since then the use of airships has been of relative insignificance apart from providing video footage and advertising at football games and some assorted Department of Defense projects[7]

The End of the Helium Reserves?

            The US Government established the strategic National Helium Reserve in 1925 to provide for the future needs of helium in airships.  While the reserve missed the mark on the need of helium for Zeppelins, it was fortuitous in that the reserve provided a key component for fueling the space race and the Apollo missions (Emsley 221). Helium is now an essential part of many important research and medical applications. It is used in the manufacture of superconductors and plays an important role in cooling the magnets in MRI imaging technology (Seguchi). The large Hadron Collider in Switzerland uses 96 tons of it to maintain a temperature of 1.9° K for its experiments probing the frontiers of physics (Emsley 222).

Yet in 1996, despite the importance and use of helium continuing to grow, Congress, seeking easy ways to cut federal spending, passed the Helium Privatization Act which stopped the BLM from refining helium to add to the reserve and put up for sale what remained (Tamura 2010). Now, without requirements or incentives to capture and refine the helium they pump out of the ground alongside profitable gas, natural gas companies let loose much of the helium that is extracted from these easily reachable reserves.  It is expected that the US will have to begin importing helium from one of the handful of other countries that have access to helium resources: Algeria, Qatar, or Russia. Without a steady supply of helium, much of the medical industry and important scientific research would grind to a halt (Tamura).

The end of balloons?

With the draining of the reserve in 2015, companies and countries are beginning to feel the pinch and throw around the word crisis. Japan has had to turn factories and research institutions offline, and within the last decade, the price of helium has tripled (Seguchi).  The situation has garnered more media and public attention. Luckily, reserves of helium are still expected to be contained within the earth, and new methods of its procurement are being developed, so a prolonged crisis may be avoidable (Clarke).   

Conservation will become crucial if we want to provide adequate helium far into the future, although we can stop short of banning the sale of our favorite vessels for helium, the balloon.[8] Only 8 percent of the global usage of helium is wrapped up in the party balloon industry, an amount that can be wasted by a single natural gas plant (Clarke), (Green).

 It is imperative, however, that a shift be made in how we value and handle our reserves of a resource that once gone from our grasp on earth, will forever be so. It has been hard for the United States to manage its relationship with helium, the resource that it never expected to discover and didn’t quite know what to do with once found. Incredible advances in the scientific fields were spawned out of its relative abundance. Unfortunately, our politicians lacked the foresight or understanding to see the value in the odorless, invisible, nonreactive resource that is helium.  The balloon is perhaps our best ambassador for helium— a way to visualize the otherwise unseen, a chance to hold onto, and feel the power of the element tugging at us from the end of the string. And of course, with enough helium at our disposal, there is no telling what heights we will be lifted off to.  

Works Cited

Arbuckle, Alex Q. “September 27, 1986: Balloonfest.” Mashable. 2016 Web. 01 Mar 2016.

Brain, Marshall. “How Helium Balloons Work.” InfoSpace LLC. 2000. Web. 05 Mar 2016.

Brumfiel, Geoff. “Paired-up helium molecules make it big.” Nature Vol 424. 21 Aug 2003. 865. Web. 03 Mar 2016.

Cady, Hamilton P. “Helium as a Balloon Gas”. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-) 30 (1919): 212–214. Web. 03 Mar 2016.

Cady, H. P., and D. F. McFarland. “Helium in Kansas Natural Gas”. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-) 20 (1906): 80–81. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Challoner, Jack. The Elements: The New Guide to the Building Blocks of our Universe. London: Andre Deutsch, 2014. Print.

Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives. Hearing on the Exportation of Helium Gas. 21 May 1920. 66th Congress, 2nd Session. Washington: GPO. 1920. Web. 08 Mar 2016.

Clarke, Richard, William Nuttall, and Bartek Glowacki. “Endangered Helium: Bursting the Myth” TCE Today. Dec2013: 32-36. Web. 08 Mar 2016.

Dorminey, Bruce. “Is There a Future for Airships?” Scientific American. 03 May 2011.  Web. 08 Mar 2016.

Emsley, John. Natures Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Epple, Dennis, and Lester Lave. “Helium: Investments in the Future”. The Bell Journal of Economics 11.2 (1980): 617–630. Web. 10 Feb 2016.

Frost, Edwin B. “Helium, Astronomically Considered.” Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 7.45 (1895): 317–326. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Green, Jarrod. “Helium: light and precious.” Canberra Times (Australia). 14 June 2015: A026. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Grossman, Dan. “The Hindenburg Disaster.” May 2009. Web. 08 Mar 2016.

McCool, John. “High on Helium.” The University of Kansas. 2016. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Nordhaus, Jean. “How to Spell Happiness”. The Antioch Review 62.2 (2004): 326–326. Web. 10 Feb 2016.

O’Malley, Michael. “25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square.” Plain Dealer Publishing. 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 05 Mar 2016.

Patenaude, Bertrand M. “The Zeppelin menace.” Hoover Digest Feb 2014: 169+. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Mar 2016

Peterson, Andrea, Craig Timberg, Christian Davenport. “The military lost control of a giant, unmanned surveillance blimp.” The Washington Post. 28 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Mar 2016

“Recent Books and Pamphlets”. “Recent Books and Pamphlets”. Science 2.29 (1883): 254–254. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

“The Liquefaction of Helium”. Science 28.714 (1908): 316–316. Web. 06 Mar 2016

“The Use of Helium for Airships”. The Scientific Monthly 8.4 (1919): 383–384. Web 03 Mar 2016.

Seguchi, Kurahito and Masayuki Terazawa. “No one taking helium shortage lightly.” Nikkei Asian Review (Japan). 10 Apr 2014. Web. 05 Mar 2016.

S. F., and E. S. H. “Separation of Helium from a Terrestrial Substance”. Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific 7.41 (1895): 129–130. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

S.K.B. “The History of Balloons.” Balloon Headquarters. 01 Nov. 2002. Web. 05 Mar 2016.

Smith, Chris, and Richard Van Noorden. Chemistry in its Element: Helium.” Royal Society of Chemistry. Audio Blog Post. 15 Feb 2016.

Stokes, H. N. “Helium and Argon”. Science 2.43 (1895): 533–539. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Tadayon, Pooya. “Theories of Covalent Bonding.” CHEM221. PCC Rock Creek. 07 Mar 2016. Lecture.

Tamura, Leslie. “Why the country is running out of gas.” The Washington Post. E01.12 Oct 2010. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

Todd, David P. “The Sun”. Science 2.28 (1895): 29–39. Web. 06 Mar 2016.

“World War One: How the German Zeppelin wrought terror.” British Broadcasting Company. 04 Aug 2014. Web. 08 Mar 2016.

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[1] contains a gallery of excellent photos of the event taken by Thom Sheridan.

[2] Nitrogen is referenced for comparison as is the primary component of the air we breathe.

[3] There are always exceptions— helium has been made to form molecules with itself and others, but in controlled laboratory experiments where they exist for mere fractions of a second (Brumfiel). The cation He2+ can also occur, where a He+ ion bonds with a He atom.  Also, larger Noble Gases have d-orbitals available and will covalently bond in some species (Tadayon).

[4] Modern experimentation has provided a more accurate measurement of 4.2°K (-269°C) as well as a Melting point of 0.95°K (-272°C), at 26 atmos. Pressure (Emsley 222).

[5] All of the Helium that we have available to us on Earth— and ever will have available to us— is the result of the decay of larger radioactive elements deep within the crust. The helium remains trapped in impermeable rock layers, along with other natural gases (Challoner).

[6] There has, however, in the last decade, been some renewed interest in the commercial use of helium airships, that when coupled with modern technologies and advancements make a compelling case for a Golden Age yet to come. (Dorminey 2011).

[7] In October of 2015 the Military lost control of one of their unmanned surveillance aerostats (blimps that are tethered to the ground) from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. What followed was a social media and news outlet frenzy on the subject, bringing attention to an already contentious defense project (Peterson).

[8] Japan has already seen a ban on balloons sold at Tokyo Disneyland, so dire is the helium crunch there. (Seguchi)

Published by Jim Wilson

An avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, I settled in Oregon after years of working on hiking trails in Southeast Alaska with the USFS and exploring the Pacific Northwest and rest of the country in the offseason.

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