Growing up, most of us were introduced to helium gas at birthday parties in the form of lighter-than-air balloons.
However, helium isn’t just for party tricks — it’s also a critical gas in many industries.
What is helium used for?
Helium has many uses, besides blimps and party balloons. Businesses prize it for its non-reactive properties. Unlike hydrogen, which tends to explode, helium is a highly stable gas, having two electrons in its innermost electron ring.
You find applications of helium in laboratories. Helium, for instance, is a critical inert gas for controlled laboratory conditions. Because of its low boiling point (the lowest of any element), it’s useful for studying the science of superconductivity.
In industry, helium finds applications as a coolant for nuclear reactors, a reagent in arc welding, refrigeration and aircraft gas. It’s also helpful for detecting gas leaks.
Medical applications also abound. Doctors regularly use helium to help patients with conditions such as chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder, asthma and obstructed airways. That’s because helium enables enhanced gas penetration into obstructed alveoli — the tiny air sacs in the lungs that transfer oxygen into the bloodstream.
Medics may also use helium in laparoscopic surgeries as an alternative to carbon monoxide (which is a much more dangerous gas). Helium allows surgeons to create voids and cavities inside a patient’s body, making it easier for them to see what they are doing.
Helium’s superconducting properties are also beneficial for the magnets used in MRI scanners. The gas helps them function better and produce more accurate images of soft tissues inside patients’ bodies.
Are there any everyday uses of helium?
Aside from party balloons, there are several other everyday uses of helium. For instance, manufacturers regularly include gas in diving mixtures. Helium allows divers to make fewer stops on their return to the surface.
Grocery stores scanners also use helium. Many are helium-neon lasers.
Lastly, helium is a critical material for optical fibres. It has higher thermal conductivity than other gases and is better able to diffuse through solids, making it superior for optical fibre manufacturing.