TALES OUT OF SCHOOL--OCTOBER 2001

HELIUM 
 by 
 Julie Johnson

Discovery of helium in Kansas

     In May 1903 near Dexter, Kansas, drillers for the Gas, Oil and Development Company struck gas.  Because gas flow was said to be nine million cubic feet per day, expectations were high.  Stock was sold, new industries were planned and real estate prices soared.  But there was something strange about this gas.  Rumor had it that every time flames were brought near the well, the gas blew them out.  Plans were made to squelch this rumor.  There was to be an all day picnic and parade.  The highlight of the festivities would be the lighting of gas from the well to form a huge torch.  The picnic and parade went off as scheduled.  There was excitement in the air as a flaming bale of hay was swung over the gas.  To the chagrin of everyone, the flames from the hay were extinguished.  A second try had the same result.  When the flames died, Dexter's hopes of becoming an industrial metropolis died with them. 
     To figure out what was happening the natural gas hunters contacted the University of Kansas, which in 1903 had acquired an air compressor and liquifier that could solve the mystery. Hamilton P. Cady, a Kansas native and KU graduate, was doing research on the composition of natural gas.  His research had already revealed that such rare gases as neon and argon were contained in natural gas.  But on December 7, 1905 in the gas analysis lab in Bailey Hall Cady and his student David F. McFarland discovered the first evidence of helium in natural gas.  The sample brought from Dexter was nearly two percent helium, an element previously only detected on the sun and found once in a trace amount of clevite, a mineral rock.  "It assures the fact that helium is no longer a rare element but a very common element," Cady wrote, "existing in goodly quantities for the uses that are yet to be found for it." 
     The helium discovered there did turn out to be a valuable resource.  A plant near Dexter supplied the U.S. Navy with helium for the blimps that were used to detect German submarines during World War II.  Helium has been used in nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles and is also used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) done in hospitals. 
     The American Chemical Society has designated Bailey Hall on the KU campus as a national historic chemical landmark.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why doesn't helium burn? 
Why do helium filled balloons fall to the floor the next day? 
Why does breathing helium make your voice sound like Donald Duck?

Facts about helium

  • Helium, or He, is the second lightest elemental gas next to hydrogen.  It is smallest of all gases and has the lowest boiling point of any element.
  • Helium is colorless, odorless, tasteless and non-toxic. Because it is chemically inert (does not react readily with other elements), helium is non-flammable. It is only slightly soluble in water, and has a high thermal conductivity.
  • Helium would be much more plentiful in the air if not for the fact that its atoms are so light that they keep escaping from the earth's gravitational field and moving off into space.
  • Commercial helium is obtained from natural gas deposits.  Most of the helium in the world is removed from natural gas deposits in Oklahoma, Kansas, the panhandle area of Texas, and on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Helium is seven times lighter than air, conducts sound three times as fast, has five times the thermal conductivity, and does not become radioactive under irradiation.  Its unique physical properties enable or enhance many research and commercial activities. Today it is used in arc-welding equipment, lasers, and gas-cooled nuclear reactors.
  • Deep-sea divers avoid the bends by breathing a mixture of helium and oxygen.


Classroom activities

    Children and adults alike are fascinated by helium balloons.  Who hasn't heard the wails of a child who lets go of his/her helium-filled balloon and watches it float off into space.  Perhaps you can integrate the following activity into your classroom to give your students an idea of how this "floating" works. 
    Most students are comfortable with the idea of something floating in water.  In fact, if your students have taken swimming lessons, they have experienced floating themselves.  But it would be good to begin with a demonstration of water flotation.

1.  Fill a 5 gallon bucket or other large container with water. 
2.  Take a small (.254 liter), empty, plastic bottle with a cap (so you have a sealed bottle full of air). 
3.  Force the bottle to the bottom of the water-filled container.  Since the bottle is full of air, it will have a strong tendency to rise to the surface.  If you let go of the bottle, it rises quickly to the surface of the water.

The bottle rises in the water because water is a fluid and the bottle is displacing the water.  The bottle and the air in it weigh perhaps an ounce at most (one liter of air weighs about a gram, and the bottle is very light as well).  The water that the bottle displaces, however, weighs about 250 grams (one-half pound or so).  Because the weight of the bottle and its air is less than the weight of water it displaces, the bottle floats.  This is the law of buoyancy.

 Helium balloons work using exactly the same law of buoyancy.  In this case, the helium balloon that you hold by a string is floating in a "pool" of air.  The helium balloon displaces an amount of air (just like the empty bottle displaces an amount of water).  As long as the helium plus the balloon is lighter than the air it displaces, it will float in the air. 
  Helium is lighter than air.  The difference is not as great as it is between water and air (a liter of water weighs about 1000 grams, while a liter of air weighs about a gram), but it is significant.  Helium weighs 0.1785 grams per liter.  Nitrogen weighs 1.2506 grams per liter and since nitrogen makes up about 80% of the air we breath, 1.25 grams is a good approximation for the weight of a liter of air.  If you were to fill a one liter soda bottle full of helium the bottle would weigh about one gram less than the same bottle filled with air.  That doesn't sound like much-since the bottle weighs more than one gram, the bottle will not float.  However, in large volumes, the one gram per liter difference between air and helium can add up.  This explains why blimps and balloons are generally quite large-they have to displace a lot of air to float.

To figure out the lifting capacity of the helium in a balloon: 
1.  Determine volume of the balloon-4/3 x pi x radius3 ( r x r x r) 
2.  One cubic foot of helium will lift about 28 grams, so multiply volume by 28. 
3.  Divide by 454-the number of grams in a pound.

Web sites to explore:

Balloons and travel 
Good ideas for experiments 
General information 
Experiment with helium balloon in moving vehicle 
Information with link to audio demonstration of helium's effect on human voice 
Detailed description of Donald Duck effect 
General information 

Helium Safety Precautions 
 

  • Handle with care.  Helium canisters are under high pressure.
  • Do not allow anyone to inhale helium from the filling equipment or from balloons.   Suffocation can take place by reducing the concentration of oxygen, the air necessary to support life.  Inhaling directly from filling equipment can also cause serious lung damage, which could result in death.
  • Do not allow children to touch the cylinder or to operate the balloon filling equipment.