150th Anniversary of Helium gives us an Amazing Opportunity to have a look at its Numerous Benefits

150th Anniversary of Helium gives us an Amazing Opportunity to have a look at its Numerous Benefits

Critical medical applications like NMR and MRI were simply impossible without the second most abundant element of the universe.

Helium was discovered by Jules Janssen, a French Astronomer, on 18th August 1868. He found this noble gas during a total solar eclipse and gave it the name ‘Helium’ after the source of its discovery, the Helios (Sun). Since then, the usage of this gas has certainly come a long way in the last 150 years. From the manufacturing process of cell phones to the field of astrophysics, Helium has acquired the status of an essential commodity. The reports of helium shortage have been surfacing for quite some years now. Although there is only a small quantity of this gas on our planet, we can hardly do anything about it. The lightness of its nucleus means that the gravity of Earth cannot hold it. As a result, it is wiped away by the solar wind after entering the atmosphere of our planet.

The molecule of Helium is the smallest among all the noble gases yet it brings quite a lot of advantages to humankind. The first and foremost feature which makes it incredibly useful for humanity is its stability. Similarly, it is non-poisonous, non-flammable, chemically inert, and can stay in a liquid state for temperatures as low as -267o C (it has a boiling point of -268o C). The fact that no other material offers these benefits makes Helium an irreplaceable commodity for many industrial applications. Without a whisker of a doubt, the most important advantage of Helium is its use in the medical imaging industry.

The fields of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) cannot survive with the ultra-low boiling point that this noble gas has to offer. The devices of both of these revolutionary technologies are used to image the human body which is not possible without a superconducting material which can remain stable at -267o C. Basically, an enormous magnetic field is required for these imaging techniques which cannot be achieved with conductors as they resist the flow of electrons through them. All the electronic devices we use at our homes, schools, and offices waste energy due to these restrictive forces. This is where a superconductor comes to our aid but it needs an incredibly low temperature to function properly and Helium offers just that.

When the critical temperature condition of a special superconducting material is met at -267o C, extremely high currents are pumped into the coil wound around that superconductor. The ‘Bitter Superconducting Magnet’, which is located in the U.S. National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at the University of Florida, has been able to produce the largest stable magnetic field till now. It generated a magnetic field of 450,000 Gauss which is 1.5 million times more than the magnetic field of the Earth.

The researchers at the Colorado State University used NMR to pattern the physical properties of the new material discoveries they made at their lab. Some of these materials turned into recyclable structures while others are being used as antibiotics. Having said that, the method (NMR) they used cannot exist without the presence of Helium and things don’t seem to be changing, any time soon, in this regard. The positive thing in this context is that scientists have finally realized the importance of this noble gas and are now trying to maintain sufficient reserves of Helium. They mentioned that the techniques of recycling Helium before it escapes into space and search for finding new reserves show that the intent is there. However, all of these measures require an ample amount of time and money to progress efficiently.

In addition to this massive application, Helium is used in high-tech manufacturing, welding, fiber optic cables, testing of rocket engines, magnets in particle accelerators, chips of our cell phones, and defensive technologies. The reliance of humanity on this stable noble gas is quite evident from these applications and we must strive even harder to locate more sources of this precious resource. At the same time, we must discover improved strategies of recycling to minimize the cost associated with this process.

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