While you may know it as the stuff you inhaled to make your voice higher or the property that causes balloons to float, helium gas is used for much more than that. Helium is a noble gas, colorless and odorless, and it is the second most abundant element in the universe. While you may not see it, it’s a significant component of modern life.
Helium: saving lives every day.
One of the significant industries that use helium is medicine. Helium is often used as a cooling agent, because it does not solidify under extreme temperatures. In fact, this gas doesn’t become a liquid until -450 degrees Fahrenheit! Thus, it is used as a cooling agent by cooling down the superconductive magnetic coils, an integral component of an MRI system. In medicine, sometimes helium is used to aid patients with lung issues like obstructed airways, asthma, and COPD. It enables better gas penetration to the distal alveoli in the lungs, so it is used for lung ventilation when medically necessary. I may not completely understand how all of this works, but I know it’s essential in saving lives!
When it comes to using helium in space technology, helium has a variety of applications.
Cooling satellite instruments
Hydrogen-fueled rockets use helium to cool down any overheated parts of a satellite while it’s orbiting in space, because it requires helium at a temperature of -460 degrees in its cryogenic state to cool these heated components.
Cleaning out rocket engines
Cleaning out rocket engines is no easy feat. Astronauts must use helium in space rockets to expel any residual gases with a mix of hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel vessel. Helium is then used to create pressure to launch the rocket into space by pumping the gas into the fuel tank. Because it is an inert gas, it can control the hydrogen flammability during takeoff so that our brave astronauts make it into orbit safely.
What else can helium do?
Unless you are a scuba diver, you may not know the importance of the helium used in scuba dive tanks. Helium replaces nitrogen in diving gas mixtures, so that divers can go deeper underwater without adverse central nervous system effects. Without that mixture, divers could suffer from pressure effects with a potentially life-threatening condition known as “the bends.”
As an inert gas, helium doesn’t undergo any chemical changes when exposed to other elements. Because helium’s performance as a shielding gas is so consistent, researchers have a good idea on its impact of various welding applications. With helium’s good thermal conductivity, weld applications are typically used where higher heat input is needed to improve the weld bead’s wetting. With a more consistent weld, it yields a higher work speed. Who can complain about better productivity at work?
Miscellaneous helium applications
- Our love for high-speed internet wouldn’t be possible without helium! The fiber optic cables that carry the internet and TV services must be manufactured in a pure helium atmosphere to ensure air bubbles don’t get trapped inside the cables.
- Another more prevalent use of helium comes in the production of semiconductor chips. Any phone, computer, TV, or tablet that contains a chip wouldn’t be possible without the helium used at different stages in the production process.
- Computer hard drives featuring dramatically improved storage capacities rely on helium. In fact, helium-filled drives are beginning to replace air-filled drives, because they offer 50% higher storage capacity with 23% lower operating power!
- Because helium can diffuse quickly, it is the gas of choice for the near-instantaneous deployment of airbags in cars. Thanks for keeping us safe!