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Chemistry of Helium

Helium is at the top of the noble gas group (which also contains neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon) and is the least reactive element. Helium has many interesting characteristics, such as making balloons float and raising the pitch of one's voice; these applications are discussed below.


Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, next to hydrogen. Helium is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It has  a very low boiling point, and is monatomic. Helium is small and extremely light, and is the least reactive of all elements; it does not react with any other elements or ions, so there are no helium-bearing minerals in nature. Helium was first observed by studying the sun, and was named after the Greek word for the sun, Helios.


Physical Properties

Color Colorless
Phase at Room Temperature Gas
Density 0.0002 g/cm3
Boiling Point 4.2 K
Heat of Vaporization 0.1 kJ/mol
Thermal Conductivity 0.15 J/m sec K
Source Natural gas

Atomic Properties

Electron Configuration 1s2
Number of Isotopes 7 (2 liquid)
Electron Affinity 0 kJ/mol
First Ionization Energy 2372.3 kJ/mol
Second Ionization Energy 5250.3 kJ/mol
Polarizability 0.198 Å3
Atomic Weight 4.003
Atomic Volume 27.2 cm3/mol
Atomic Radius 31 pm


In Earth's Crust 8x10-3
In Earth's Ocean 7×10-6
In Human Body 0%


Occurrence and production

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Large quantities are produced in the energy-producing fusion reactions in stars. Previously, helium was rarely used, because only .0004% of Earth's atmosphere is helium—that equates to one helium molecule for every 200,000 air molecules, including oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. However, the discovery of helium-rich wells in Texas, Russia, Poland, Algeria, China, and Canada has made helium more accessible.

Helium is produced in minerals through radioactive decay. Helium is extracted from natural gas deposits, which often contain as much as 10% helium.  These natural gas reserves are the only industrially-available source of helium. The total world helium resources theoretically add up to 25.2 billion cubic meters; the United States contains 11.1 billion cubic meters. The extracted gas is subjected to chemical pre-purification, using an alkaline wash to remove carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The remaining gas is cooled to -200°C, where all materials, except helium gas, are liquefied.


Helium was first discovered in 1868 by the French astronomer P. J. C. Jenssen, who was studying the chromosphere of the Sun during a solar eclipse. He used a spectrometer to resolve the light into its spectrum, in which each color represents a different gaseous element. He observed a new yellow light, concluding that it indicated the presence of an element not previously known. In 1895, the existence of helium on Earth was proved by Sir William Ramsay. Heating cleveite (a radioactive mineral) released an inert gas, which was found to be helium; this helium is a by-product of the natural decay of radioactive elements. The chemists Norman Lockyer and Edward Frankland confirmed helium as an element and named it after helios, the Greek word for the Sun.

Applications and hazards

Helium has a number of applications due to its inert nature. Liquefied helium has cryogenic properties, and is used to freeze biological materials for long term storage and later use. Twenty percent of industrial helium use is in wielding and industrial applications. Helium protects the heated parts of metals such as aluminum and titanium from air. Mixtures of helium and oxygen are used in tanks for underwater breathing devices: due to its low density, helium gas allows oxygen to stream easily through the lungs. Because helium remains a gas, even at temperatures low enough to liquefy hydrogen, it is used as pressure gas to move liquid hydrogen into rocket engines. Its inert nature also makes helium useful for cooling nuclear power plants.

The most commonly known characteristic of helium is that it is lighter than air. It can levitate balloons during parties and fly blimps over sports stadiums. Helium has 92% of the lifting power of hydrogen; however, it is safer to use because it is noncombustible and has lower rate of diffusion than that of hydrogen gas. The famous Hindenburg disaster is an example of the hazards of using combustible gas like hydrogen. Because helium was previously very expensive only available from natural gas reserves in U.S., Nazi Germany had only hydrogen gas at its disposal. The consequences were devastating, as shown below:


Currently, helium is found in other natural gas reserves around the world. The cost of helium has decreased from $2500/ft3 in 1915 to $0.15/ft3 in 1989. Helium is what keeps the Goodyear blimps afloat over stadiums.


Helium is often inhaled from balloons to produce a high, squeaky voice. This practice can be very harmful. Inhaling helium can lead to loss of consciousness and cerebral arterial gas embolism, which can temporarily lead to complete blindness. This occurs when blood vessels in the lungs rupture, allowing the gas to gain access to the pulmonary vasculature and subsequently the brain.


Gas and plasma phases

Helium is naturally found in the gas state. Helium is the second least reactive element and noble gas (after neon). Its low atomic mass, thermal conductivity, specific heat, and sound speed are greatest after hydrogen. Due to the small size of helium atoms, the diffusion rate through solids is three times greater than that of air and 65% greater than that of hydrogen. The element is inert, monatomic in standard conditions, and the least water soluble gas. 

At normal ambient temperatures, helium has a negative Joule Thomson coefficient. Thus, upon free expansion, helium naturally heats up. However, below its Joule Thomson inversion temperature (32-50 K at 1 atm), it cools when allowed to freely expand. Once cooled, helium can be liquefied through expansion cooling. Helium is commonly found throughout the universe as plasma, a state in which electrons are not bound to nuclei. Plasmas have high electrical conductivities and are highly influenced by magnetic and electric fields. 

Solid and liquid phases

Helium is the only element that cannot be solidified by lowering the temperature at ordinary pressures; this must be accompanied by a pressure increase. The volume of solid helium, 3He and 4He, can be decreased by more than 30% by applying pressure. Solid helium has a projected density of 0.187 ± 0.009 g/mL at 0 K and 25 bar. Solid helium also has a sharp melting point and a crystalline structure. There are two forms of liquid helium: He4I and He4II.

Helium I

Helium I is formed when temperature falls below 4.22 K and above the lambda point of 2.1768 K. It is a clear liquid that boils when heat is applied and contracts when temperature is lowered. Below the lambda point, helium does not boil, but expands. Helium I has a gas-like index of refraction of 1.026 which makes its surface difficult to see. It has a very low viscosity and a density 1/8th  that of water. This property can be explained with quantum mechanics. Both helium I and II are quantum fluids, displaying atomic properties on a macroscopic scale due to the fact that the boiling point of helium is so close to absolute zero. 

Helium II

At 2.174 K, helium I forms into helium II. Its properties are very unusual, and the substance is described as superfluid. Superfluid is a quantum-mechanical state of matter; the two-fluid model for helium II explains why one portion of helium atoms exists in a ground state, flowing with zero viscosity, and another portion is in an excited state, behaving like an ordinary fluid. The viscosity of He4II is so low that there is no internal friction.

He4II can conduct heat 300 times more effectively than silver, making it the best heat conductor known. Its thermal conductivity is a million times that of helium I and several hundred times that of copper. The conductivity and viscosity of helium II do not obey classical rules, but are consistent with the rules of quantum mechanics. When temperature is lowered, helium II expands in volume. It cannot be boiled, but evaporates directly to gas when heated. 

In this superfluid state, liquid helium can flow through thin capillaries or cracks much faster than helium gas. It also exhibits a creeping effect, moving along the surface seemingly against gravity. Helium II creeps along the sides of a open vessel until it reaches a warmer region where it evaporates. As a result of the creeping behavior and the ability to leak rapidly through tiny openings, helium II is very difficult to confine. Helium II also exhibits a fountain effect. Suppose a chamber allows a reservoir of helium II to filter superfluid and non-superfluid helium. When the interior of the container is heated, superfluid helium converts to non-superfluid helium to maintain equilibrium. This creates intense pressure on the superfluid helium, causing the liquid to fountain out of the container. 


Helium has eight known isotopes but only two are stable: 3He and 4He. 3He is found in only very small quantities compared to 4He. It is produced in trace amounts by the beta decay of tritium. This form is found in abundance in stars, as a product of nuclear fusion. Extraplanetary materials have trace amounts of 3He from solar winds. 4He is produced by the alpha decay of heavier radioactive elements on Earth. It is an unusually stable isotope because its nucleons are arranged in complete shells. 


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  1. What happens when a lit cigarette is thrown at a leaking, high-pressured helium cylinder?

a). nothing

b). the cigarette is incinerated before touching the cylinder

c). the cylinder explodes

d). the cylinder becomes a flame thrower

  1. How many isotopes of helium are known? ______
  2. (Helium gas, or helium II liquid) leaks faster than the other when stored in a opened cylinder (at STP).
  3. What happens when a section of divided petri dish is filled with helium II at 2.173K?

a). It starts boiling.

b). It starts "creeping" over the divider, soon filling up the other sections of the dish.

c). It evaporates and soon leaves the dish.

d.) It solidifies and expands, breaking the dividers of the petri dish, and filling up the whole dish.

  1. Helium was first discovered through ________.



  • Jun-Hyun Hwang - University of California, Davis