Helium [He]

Characteristics

An: 2 N: 2
Am: 4.002602 g/mol
Group No: 18
Group Name: Noble gas
Block: p-block Period: 1
State: gas at 298 K
Colour: colourless
Classification: Non-metallic
Boiling Point: 4.22K (-268.93oC)
Melting Point: 0.95K (-272.2oC) @ 2.5MPa
Critical temperature: 5.19K (-267.96oC)
Density: 0.1786g/l

Availability:

There is very little helium on earth as nearly all present during and immediately after the earth’s formation has long since been lost as it is so light. Just about all the helium remaining on the planet is the result of radioactive decay. While there is some helium in the atmosphere, currently its isolation from that source by liquefaction and separation of air is not normally economic. This is because it is easier, and cheaper, to isolate the gas from certain natural gases. Concentrations of helium in natural gas in the USA are as high as 7% and other good sources include natural gas from some sources in Poland. It is isolable from these gases by liquefaction and separation of from the natural gas. This would not normally be carried out in the laboratory and helium is available commercially in cylinders under pressure.

Discovery Information

Who: Sir William Ramsey, Nils Langet, P T Cleve
When: 1895
Where: Scotland/Sweden

Name Origin

Greek: helios (sun). "helium" in different languages.

Sources

Found in natural gas deposits and in the air (5 parts per billion) Constantly lost to space; replenished by radioactive decay (alpha particles). helium is the second most abundant element in the universe by mass (25%). Most of the helium supplied around the world comes from the area around Amarillo, Texas.
Annual commercial production is around 4500 tons.

Abundance

Universe: 2.3 x 105 ppm (by weight)
Sun: 2.3 x 105 ppm (by weight)
Atmosphere: 5.2 ppm
Earth’s Crust: 0.008 ppm
Seawater: 7 x 10-6 ppm

Uses

Used in balloons as it is lighter than air, and unlike hydrogen, not flammable; deep sea diving and welding. Also used in very low temperature research and nuclear power plant coolant. Future possible uses include use as coolant for nuclear fusion power plants and in superconducting electric systems.

At extremely low temperatures, liquid helium is used to cool certain metals to produce superconductivity, such as in superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging. Helium at low temperatures is also used in cryogenics.

Because it is inert, helium is used as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, in titanium and zirconium production, in gas chromatography, and as an atmosphere for protecting historical documents. This property also makes it useful in supersonic wind tunnels.

History

Evidence of helium was first detected on August 18, 1868 as a bright yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometres in the spectrum of the chromosphere of the Sun, by French astronomer Pierre Janssen during a total solar eclipse in Guntur, India. This line was initially assumed to be sodium. On October 20 of the same year, English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed a yellow line in the solar spectrum, which he named the D3 line, for it was near the known D1 and D2 lines of sodium, and concluded that it was caused by an element in the Sun unknown on Earth. He and English chemist Edward Frankland named the element with the Greek word for the Sun.

On 26 March 1895 British chemist William Ramsay isolated helium on Earth by treating the mineral cleveite with mineral acids. Ramsay was looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas liberated by sulfuric acid, noticed a bright-yellow line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of the Sun. These samples were identified as hhelium by Lockyer and British physicist William Crookes. It was independently isolated from cleveite the same year by chemists Per Teodor Cleve and Abraham Langlet in Uppsala, Sweden, who collected enough of the gas to accurately determine its atomic weight. helium was also isolated by the American geochemist William Francis Hillebrand prior to Ramsay’s discovery when he noticed unusual spectral lines while testing a sample of the mineral uraninite. Hillebrand, however, attributed the lines to nitrogen. His letter of congratulations to Ramsay offers an interesting case of discovery and near-discovery in science.

In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds demonstrated that an alpha particle is a helium nucleus. In 1908, helium was first liquefied by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes by cooling the gas to less than one kelvin. He tried to solidify it by further reducing the temperature but failed because helium does not have a triple point temperature where the solid, liquid, and gas phases are at equilibrium. It was first solidified in 1926 by his student Willem Hendrik Keesom by subjecting helium to 25 atmospheres of pressure.

In 1938, Russian physicist Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa discovered that helium-4 has almost no viscosity at temperatures near absolute zero, a phenomenon now called superfluidity. In 1972, the same phenomenon was observed in helium-3 by American physicists Douglas D. Osheroff, David M. Lee, and Robert C. Richardson.

Notes

helium has the lowest melting and boiling point of any element. Liquid Helium is called a "quantum fluid" as it displays atomic properties on a macroscopic scale. The viscosity of liquid helium is 25 micropoises (water has a viscosity of 10,000 micropoises). As helium is cooled below its transition point, it has an unusual property of superfluidity with a viscosity approaching zero micropoises. In addition, liquid helium has extremely high thermal conductivity.

helium is the second most abundant and second lightest element in the periodic table. It is also the least reactive of all the group 18 (noble gases) elements.

One cubic metre of helium will lift 1kg. helium is the preferred choice for airships as although it is more expensive it is not flammable and has 92% the lifting power of hydrogen.

The voice of a person who has inhaled helium temporarily sounds high-pitched, resembling those of the cartoon characters "Alvin and the Chipmunks". This is because the speed of sound in helium is nearly three times that in air. Although the vocal effect of inhaling helium may be amusing, it can be dangerous if done to excess since helium is a simple asphyxiant, thus it displaces oxygen needed for normal respiration. Death by asphyxiation will result within minutes if pure helium is breathed continuously.

Helium Compounds

helium is chemically unreactive under all normal conditions due to its valence of zero. Because of this extreme conditions are needed to create the small handful of helium compounds, which are all unstable at standard temperature and pressure.

No useful (with exception to those produced for scientific research) or commercial helium compounds exist.

Reactions of Helium

Helium is chemically unreactive under all normal conditions due to its valence of zero. It is an electrical insulator unless ionized. As with the other noble gases, helium has metastable energy levels that allow it to remain ionized in an electrical discharge with a voltage below its ionization potential. Helium can form unstable compounds with tungsten, iodine, fluorine, sulfur and phosphorus when it is subjected to an electric glow discharge, through electron bombardment or is otherwise a plasma. HeNe, HgHe10, WHe2 and the molecular ions He2+, He2++, HeH+, and HeD+ have been created this way. This technique has also allowed the production of the neutral molecule He2, which has a large number of band systems, and HgHe, which is apparently only held together by polarization forces. Theoretically, other compounds, like helium fluorohydride (HHeF), may also be possible.

Occurrence and Production of Helium

Natural Abundance
helium is the second most abundant element in the known Universe after hydrogen and constitutes 23% of the elemental mass of the universe. It is concentrated in stars, where it is formed from hydrogen by the nuclear fusion of the proton-proton chain reaction and CNO cycle. According to the Big Bang model of the early development of the universe, the vast majority of helium was formed during Big Bang nucleosynthesis, from one to three minutes after the Big Bang. As such, measurements of its abundance contribute to cosmological models.

In the Earth’s atmosphere, the concentration of helium by volume is only 5.2 parts per million, largely because most helium in the Earth’s atmosphere escapes into space due to its inertness and low mass. In the Earth’s heterosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere, helium and other lighter gases are the most abundant elements.
Nearly all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay. The decay product is primarily found in minerals of uranium and thorium, including cleveites, pitchblende, carnotite, monazite and beryl, because they emit alpha particles, which consist of helium nuclei (He2+) to which electrons readily combine. In this way an estimated 3.4 litres of helium per year are generated per cubic kilometer of the Earth’s crust. In the Earth’s crust, the concentration of helium is 8 parts per billion. In seawater, the concentration is only 4 parts per trillion. There are also small amounts in mineral springs, volcanic gas, and meteoric iron. The greatest concentrations on the planet are in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is derived.

Modern Extraction
For large-scale use, helium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which contains up to 7% helium. Since helium has a lower boiling point than any other element, low temperature and high pressure are used to liquefy nearly all the other gases (mostly nitrogen and methane). The resulting crude helium gas is purified by successive exposures to lowering temperatures, in which almost all of the remaining nitrogen and other gases are precipitated out of the gaseous mixture. Activated charcoal is used as a final purification step, usually resulting in 99.995% pure, Grade-A, helium. The principal impurity in Grade-A helium is neon.

As of 2004, over one hundred and fifty million cubic metres of helium were extracted from natural gas or withdrawn from helium reserves, annually, with approximately 84% of production from the United States, 10% from Algeria, and most of the remainder from Canada, China, Poland, Qatar, and Russia. In the United States, most helium is produced in Kansas and Texas.

Diffusion of crude natural gas through special semi-permeable membranes and other barriers is another method to recover and purify helium. Helium can be synthesized by bombardment of lithium or boron with high-velocity protons, but this is not an economically viable method of production.

Isotopes of Helium

A subset of exotic light nuclei, the exotic helium isotopes have larger atomic masses than helium’s natural isotopes. Although all exotic helium isotopes decay with a half-llife of less than one second, researchers have eagerly created exotic light isotopes through particle accelerator collisions to create unusual atomic nuclei for elements such as helium, lithium, and nitrogen. The bizarre nuclear structures of such isotopes may offer insight into the isolated properties of neutrons.

The most widely-studied exotic helium isotope, for example, is helium-8. This isotope is thought to consist of a normal helium-4 nucleus surrounded by four neutrons dubbed a "halo" (6He also has a halo of neutrons). Halo nuclei have become an area of intense research. isotopes up to helium-10, with two protons and eight neutrons, have been confirmed. By comparison, the most common He-4 isotope has only two neutrons.
There are eight known isotopes of helium, but only helium-3 and helium-4 are stable. In the Earth’s atmosphere, there is one He-3 atom for every million He-4 atoms.

The most common isotope, helium-4, is produced on Earth by alpha decay of heavier radioactive elements; the alpha particles that emerge are fully ionized helium-4 nuclei. Helium-4 is an unusually stable nucleus because its nucleons are arranged into complete shells. It was also formed in enormous quantities during Big Bang nucleosynthesis.

3He [1 neutrons]
Abundance: 0.000137%
Stable with 1 neutron
Extraplanetary material, such as lunar and asteroid regolith, have trace amounts of helium-3 from being bombarded by solar winds. The Moon’s surface contains helium-3 at concentrations on the order of 0.01 ppm.


4He [2 neutrons]
Abundance: 99.999863%
Stable with 2 neutrons
Liquid helium-4 can be cooled to about 1 kelvin using evaporative cooling.

5He [3 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 7.00(30) x 10-24 seconds
Decays to 4He.
Highly unstable, decays to 4He.

6He [4 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 806.7(15) ms [ beta- ]
Decays to 6Li.
Produced from 7He or 11Li.
7He [5 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 2.9(5)-21 seconds
Highly unstable, decays to 6He.
8He [6 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 119.0(15) ms
Produced from 9He, decomposes to 7Li through beta decay then emits a delayed neutron.

9He [7 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 7(4) x 10-21 seconds
Highly unstable, decays to 8He.

10He [8 neutrons]
Abundance:
Half life: 2.7(18) x 10-21 seconds
Highly unstable, decays to 9He.

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