9 Important, Everyday Uses of Helium

Helium, with the chemical symbol He and atomic number 2, is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe. It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless and non-toxic gas, which has the lowest boiling point (-268.3°C) amongst all elements. It also remains in a gaseous state at most temperatures and pressures on Earth. 

Although helium is best known for inflating balloons, these unique properties make it suitable for a range of other applications. In fact, helium plays a crucial role in various scientific, industrial, and medical applications, from healthcare to flight. 

In this article, we’ll look at the different uses for helium in more detail, and explain why this noble gas is brilliant for inflating balloons — and much more.

1. Balloons

Helium’s low density makes it an excellent choice for inflating balloons. Its molecules are smaller and lighter than the air around us, so it easily fills the balloon’s interior, allowing it to stay buoyant and airborne for long periods of time. In fact, due to its unique properties, helium balloons can stay afloat for up to several days, depending on the size and type of balloon.

Helium balloons tend to be available in a wide range of colours, shapes, and sizes, which makes them perfect for parties, promotional events, parades, and other festive occasions. The gas is commonly stored in pressurized helium cylinders which can be rented or bought, and allows for easy inflation of balloons on-site.

2. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Helium plays a crucial role in the operation of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. An MRI machine includes coils, a magnet, and wires that conduct an electric current. In order to function, a coolant is required to cool down the superconducting magnets. 

Helium cools low-temperature superconducting materials and low-temperature superconducting magnets to a temperature close to absolute zero, so that the electrical resistance of superconductors drops abruptly to zero. Thus, liquid helium is used to cool the superconducting magnets in MRI machines, allowing them to operate at extremely low temperatures without any electrical resistance. The more powerful magnetic field also results in radiological image scans in much greater detail. 

An MRI unit requires approximately 2,000 litres of liquid helium to keep the magnet cool enough to operate. Additional refills may be required over the lifetime of the unit. However, manufacturers have been putting helium reclamation units in MRI scanners since the 1990s to recycle helium and avoid a shortage. 

3. Cryogenics 

As well as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), helium’s ability to exist in a liquid state at ultra-low temperatures also makes it useful for preserving biological materials, including sperm, eggs, embryos and tissues. It can also be used for studying the properties of matter at very low temperatures, by cooling instruments and equipment in research settings. 

However, this list is far from extensive. Helium is used as a super coolant for lots of cryogenic applications, such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES), particle accelerators and magnetic levitation transport.

4. Welding

Helium’s high thermal conductivity and non-flammable properties allows for precise and efficient welding and cutting processes, resulting in cleaner and higher-quality welds with fewer defects. 

As helium might enable higher flow rates, this could increase welding speeds in some circumstances. Although helium can be more expensive, that cost is often offset by the faster weld speeds and higher-quality result.

In addition to this, the high ionisation potential of helium enables the plasma arc welding of exotic metals such as titanium, zirconium, magnesium and aluminium alloys used in construction and aerospace. 

5. Leak Detection

Helium is widely used for leak detection in various industries, but is most often used where gas or liquid leaks could pose safety hazards, such as in aerospace, automotive, pharmaceuticals, and electronics manufacturing. 

Helium is chosen as the tracer gas because it has the smallest molecular size and can therefore detect leaks at extremely low levels. In addition to this, helium will not react with any of the materials within the part that is to be tested, and is considered safe to use. 

A leak is detected through the helium leak test by charging helium gas and passing the leaked gas through the mass analyser tube to detect helium only. In most helium leak testing applications, a mass spectrometer is used.

6. Space Exploration

Blimps, airships and high-altitude scientific balloons, such as weather balloons, take flight with helium. Helium is the second lightest element after hydrogen. However, unlike hydrogen which has flammable properties, helium is a safe and non-combustible option. 

Helium is also used in spacecraft and satellites for various other purposes, including pressurising propellant and fuel tanks, and cooling instruments. For example, helium has been applied in pressure purging operations to maintain pressure in liquid oxygen fuel in Delta IV rockets, to prevent them from collapsing.

7. Deep Sea Diving

For professional divers in water depths below 30m, helium-enriched breathing gas can be used to keep them safe. Helium has extremely low solubility in water and blood and is less narcotic than nitrogen, reducing the risk of nitrogen narcosis or the build-up of nitrogen in blood. Helium is also less dense than nitrogen, which enables faster gas exchange and minimises decompression time. 

In addition to this, helium is non-flammable and non-toxic, making it a safe choice for use in high-pressure environments. It also doesn’t cause corrosion to the diving equipment. 

8. Lasers

Helium-neon lasers are a type of gas laser that emit a highly visible, red light, often used in laser pointers, barcode scanners, and alignment devices. These lasers are known for being stable and coherent, which make them valuable tools for various applications, from scanning and printing to retinal scanning systems and scientific research.

Helium-neon lasers operate by exciting a mixture of helium and neon gases within a sealed glass tube. An electrical glow discharge excites helium atoms, which transfer their energy to neon atoms during the collisions.

9. Thermal Spraying

Helium is used as powder carrier gas for fast thermal spraying (sometimes known as metal spraying), a versatile industrial process used for applying protective coatings, and repairing or enhancing the properties of various materials and components.

Helium is used as a cooling gas to maintain the stability of the process and prevent overheating, and to improve coating quality by allowing for better control over the cooling and solidification of the molten particles. 

Image via The Open University, Thermal Spraying (2018).

At Worldwide Gas, we are the largest manufacturer of wholesale helium and nitrous oxide gas cylinders, tanks and accessories in the world. Better yet, our distributors have access to our design team, with pre- and post-delivery marketing support. Choose your branding, logos, colours and packaging, and work with our experts to bring your custom helium or nitrous oxide products to life. Want to work with us, or have another question? Contact our friendly team via email, WhatsApp, or video chat.

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