Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Where Do We Get the Helium We Use?

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Where Do We Get the Helium We Use?

Article excerpt

Byline: Greg Voth


Since helium is an inert gas that drifts to space, where do we get the helium that we use here on Earth for balloons and other applications?

Tom Stahley, 7-12 Science Educator, Skyview High School, Billings, Montana


Helium is produced at a slow rate by radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth. The alpha particles emitted in these decays consist of two protons and two neutrons, so they only need to acquire two electrons to form a helium atom. It is well known that helium does not react with other elements and is very light, so it eventually drifts to the upper atmosphere and then escapes into space. There are always trace amounts of helium in the atmosphere (0.0005% at sea level) that have not yet escaped into space. The helium that we use comes from geological deposits where it has collected with natural gas. When the natural gas is extracted for fuel, the helium comes with it.

The story of the discovery and eventual extraction of helium on an industrial scale is fascinating. Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is so rare and unreactive in the Earth's atmosphere that it was first discovered by studying the spectrum of light from the Sun in 1868. The name helium is derived from the Greek word for Sun, Helios. For nearly 40 years after its discovery, there was no source of significant amounts of helium on Earth. In 1903, a surprising event in the small town of Dexter, Kansas, started a chain of events that led to industrial helium production. A drilling rig had hit "a howling gasser" and the town had gathered to see the lighting of the escaping natural gas. …

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