Skip to Main Content

About Helium

Helium Bohr

Using a spectrometer to analyze the chromosphere of the sun during a solar eclipse in 1868, French astronomer Jules Janssen noticed an unusual yellow line in the spectrum that he suspected indicated the presence of a yet-undiscovered element. Several months thereafter, English chemists Joseph Norman Lockyer and Edward Franklin observed the same spectral line in sunlight and came to the same conclusion; the two proposed the name “Helium” for the element after Helios, the Greek god of the sun, appropriate for the first element to be discovered in space rather than on earth. Scottish chemist William Ramsay was the first to successfully isolate the element in 1895 by treating a sample of the uranium ore cleveite, thereby proving its existence on earth.

Limited to the scope of the planet, helium is a relatively scarce element, produced only in via the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium. It is the sixth most abundant gas in the atmosphere at 5.2ppm and one of the only elements light enough to possess escape velocity, rising and exiting the atmosphere at a rate roughly equal to its formation on earth. In space, however, helium is far more prevalent; it is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, making up 24% of its total observable mass, and is primarily produced in the cores of hydrogen-burning stars that fuse protons into helium nuclei to produce light and heat.

Helium remained unknown by scientists for so long due to its extreme chemical inertness, making it difficult to detect via conventional methods. This inertness is characteristic of the elements known as “noble gases” (Group 18 on the periodic table, which includes neon and argon), whose extreme stability and unwillingness to react with other elements is due to the completeness of their outer valence shells. Odorless, colorless, and nontoxic, helium is the lightest of the noble gases, and the second lightest of all elements in the universe after hydrogen. 99.999% of all helium atoms exists as stable isotope helium-4, composed of two protons, two neutrons, and two electrons in a single shell. This structure structure that yields the most stable and inert element on the periodic table, a monoatomic gas that always exists in pure elemental form in its natural state. Neon is the only element other than helium that has never been observed to bond with other elements in stable compounds; however, at temperatures close to absolute zero and under extreme pressure, helium can form unstable eximer molecules with elements like sodium, fluorine, and nitrogen. The helium-4 nucleus on its own is known as an alpha particle, the particle emitted in alpha-type radioactive decay. Approximate 0.0001% of natural helium is composed of its other stable isotope, helium-3, the nucleus of which has one neutron and is referred to as a helion. The existence of helium-3 was proven by Luis W. Alvarez and Robert Cornog at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1939. Seven other highly unstable isotopes are known; Helium-9, for example, has a half-life of 7 zeptoseconds, or seven sextillionths of a second.

Helium has the lowest solubility in water of any known gas and the lowest melting point of all elements on the periodic table; in fact, it is the only element that cannot be effectively solidified by merely lowering its temperature, as it remains liquid in form down to nearly absolute zero. Close to those temperatures, helium form a superfluid, a quantum state first discovered by Russian physicist Pyotr Kapitsa and John F. Allen in 1937: with almost zero viscosity or entropy, the fluid exhibits superconductivity and can flow up and over the walls of containers, defying the laws of gravity and surface tension, and can pass through nanoscale holes that would normally be impermeable to the gas. At 0.95K, helium can be transformed into a so-called supersolid or quantum solid by applying 25 atmospheres of pressure; to achieve the same result at room temperature requires 114,000 atmospheres of pressure, over 100 times greater than pressure experienced at the deepest point on the ocean floor. The unusual crystalline structure of solid helium exhibits an internal frictionless flow of atoms that impart properties like high compressibility and reversible plasticity.

Billions of cubic feet of helium are produced for commercial consumption each year, primarily from the natural gas wells between Amarillo, Texas and Hugoton, Kansas in the central United States. Helium comprises up to 7% of natural gas deposits and can be isolated from methane and other contaminants via the process of fractional distillation. Both liquid and gaseous helium play a role in the commercial sphere. Helium was first liquefied by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in 1913, earning him the Nobel Prize, and approximately 25% of helium’s current commercial use is in liquid form for cryogenic refrigeration. Because helium remains in liquid form even at extremely low temperatures, it is used to cool superconducting wires in high-powered magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and large particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; it also serves as a heat-transfer medium for gas-cooled nuclear reactors thanks to its transparency to neutrons and high thermal conductivity. Buoyant in air, helium gas has had well-known use in ballooning since the early 20th century, eventually replacing hydrogen due to the latter’s extreme flammability (as demonstrated by the infamous 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster). The first gas lasers employed a combination of helium and neon, and the air tanks of scuba divers substitute helium for nitrogen to prevent decompression sickness due to helium’s lower blood solubility. Helium has applications in gas chromatography, industrial gas leak detection using helium mass spectrometers, and geological dating of thorium and uranium-containing rocks.

By far the most prominent commercial use for helium gas is providing an inert atmosphere for arc welding and semiconductor component fabrication, particularly during growth of high purity silicon and germanium single crystals. Other emerging roles in advanced technology for helium include allowing further investigation into the properties of quantum superfluids and supersolids, serving as a plasma source in plasma transistors that can operate at temperatures higher than silicon-based transistors, rocket propulsion from the fusion of helium-3 with deuterium, and using spin-polarized helium-3 beams for medical imaging and materials analysis.

Helium Properties

Helium Bohr ModelHelium is a Block S, Group 18, Period 1 element. The number of electrons in each of Helium's shells is 2 and its electronic configuration is 1s2. In its elemental form helium's CAS number is 7440-59-7. The helium atom has a covalent radius of and it's Van der Waals radius is Commercial helium is extracted from natural gas. Helium was discovered by Pierre Janssen and Norman Lockyer in 1868. It was first isolated by William Ramsay, Per Teodor Cleve and Abraham Langlet in 1895.

Helium information, including technical data, properties, other useful facts are specified below. Scientific facts such as the atomic structure, ionization energy, abundance on Earth, conductivity, and thermal properties are included.

Symbol: He
Atomic Number: 2
Atomic Weight: 4.003
Element Category: noble gases
Group, Period, Block: 18, 1, s
Color: colorless
Other Names: Elio, Hélio
Melting Point: -272.2°C, -457.96°F, 0.950 K
Boiling Point: -268.93°C, -452.074°F, 4.220 K
Density: 120 (4.22 K) kg·m3
Liquid Density @ Melting Point: 0.145 g/cm3
Density @ 20°C: 0.0001787 g/cm3
Density of Solid: 214 kg·m3
Specific Heat: N/A
Superconductivity Temperature: N/A
Triple Point: 2.177 K, 5.043 kPa
Critical Point: 5.1953 K, 0.22746 MPa
Heat of Fusion (kJ·mol-1): 0.021
Heat of Vaporization (kJ·mol-1): 0.082
Heat of Atomization (kJ·mol-1): 0
Thermal Conductivity: 0.1513 W·m-1·K-1
Thermal Expansion: N/A
Electrical Resistivity: N/A
Tensile Strength: N/A
Molar Heat Capacity: 5R/2 = 20.786 J·mol-1·K-1
Young's Modulus: N/A
Shear Modulus: N/A
Bulk Modulus: N/A
Poisson Ratio: N/A
Mohs Hardness: N/A
Vickers Hardness: N/A
Brinell Hardness: N/A
Speed of Sound: 972 m·s-1
Pauling Electronegativity: N/A
Sanderson Electronegativity: N/A
Allred Rochow Electronegativity: 5.5
Mulliken-Jaffe Electronegativity: 3.49 (s orbital)
Allen Electronegativity: N/A
Pauling Electropositivity: N/A
Reflectivity (%): N/A
Refractive Index: 1.000035 (gas; liquid 1.028) 
Electrons: 2
Protons: 2
Neutrons: 2
Electron Configuration: 1s2
Atomic Radius: N/A
Atomic Radius,
non-bonded (Å):
Covalent Radius: 28 pm
Covalent Radius (Å): 0.37
Van der Waals Radius: 140 pm
Oxidation States: 0
Phase: Gas
Crystal Structure: hexagonal close-packed
Magnetic Ordering: diamagnetic
Electron Affinity (kJ·mol-1) Not stable
1st Ionization Energy: 2372.3 kJ·mol-1
2nd Ionization Energy: 5250.5 kJ·mol-1
3rd Ionization Energy: N/A
CAS Number: 7440-59-7
EC Number: 231-168-5
MDL Number: MFCD00011031
Beilstein Number: N/A
SMILES Identifier: [He]
InChI Identifier: InChI=1S/He
PubChem CID: 23987
ChemSpider ID: 22423
Earth - Total: N/A
Mercury - Total: N/A
Venus - Total: N/A
Earth - Seawater (Oceans), ppb by weight: 0.0072
Earth - Seawater (Oceans), ppb by atoms: 0.011
Earth -  Crust (Crustal Rocks), ppb by weight: 5.5
Earth -  Crust (Crustal Rocks), ppb by atoms: 30
Sun - Total, ppb by weight: 2.3E+08
Sun - Total, ppb by atoms: 74000000
Stream, ppb by weight: N/A
Stream, ppb by atoms: N/A
Meterorite (Carbonaceous), ppb by weight: N/A
Meterorite (Carbonaceous), ppb by atoms: N/A
Typical Human Body, ppb by weight: N/A
Typical Human Body, ppb by atom: N/A
Universe, ppb by weight: 2.3E+08
Universe, ppb by atom: 72000000
Discovered By: Pierre Janssen, Norman Lockyer
Discovery Date: 1868
First Isolation: William Ramsay, Per Teodor Cleve, Abraham Langlet (1895)

Health, Safety & Transportation Information for Helium

Helium is not toxic and is chemically inert, and thus poses minimal environmental or health threats. At room temperature, helium is typically only harmful when its presence leads to displacement of oxygen in the air, creating potential for asphyxiation. Liquid helium is extremely cold; therefore skin contact with the liquid can cause frostbite, and should be avoided.

Safety Data
Material Safety Data Sheet MSDS
Signal Word Warning
Hazard Statements H280
Hazard Codes N/A
Risk Codes N/A
Safety Precautions N/A
RTECS Number MH6520000
Transport Information UN 1046 2.2
WGK Germany 3
Globally Harmonized System of
Classification and Labelling (GHS)
Gas Cylinder - Gases Under Pressure

Helium Isotopes

Helium has two stable isotopes: 3He and 4He.

Nuclide Isotopic Mass Half-Life Mode of Decay Nuclear Spin Magnetic Moment Binding Energy (MeV) Natural Abundance
(% by atom)
2He 2.015894(2) N/A p to 2H 0+(#) N/A N/A -
3He 3.0160293191(26) Stable - 1/2+ -2.127624 7.718058 0.000137
4He 4.00260325415(6) Stable - 0+ 0 28.295673 99.999863
5He 5.01222(5) 700(30)E−24 s n to 4He 3/2- N/A 27.405672 -
6He 6.0188891(8) 806.7(15) ms β- to 6Li 0+ N/A 29.269108 -
7He 7.028021(18) 2.9(5)E−21 s [159(28) keV] n to 6He (3/2)- N/A 28.824289 -
8He 8.033922(7) 119.0(15) ms β- to 8Li; β- + n to 7Li 0+ N/A 31.407892 -
9He 9.04395(3) 7(4)E−21 s n to 8He 1/2(-#) N/A 30.258837 -
10He 10.05240(8) 2.7(18)E−21 s 2n to 8He 0+ N/A 30.338511 -
Helium Elemental Symbol

Recent Research & Development for Helium

  • Probing Gas–Liquid Interfacial Dynamics by Helium Evaporation from Hydrocarbon Liquids and Jet Fuels. Diane K. Lancaster, Alexis M. Johnson, Keaten Kappes, and Gilbert M. Nathanson. J. Phys. Chem. C: January 21, 2015
  • Complexation of Allyl Radicals and Hydrochloric Acid in Helium Nanodroplets. Daniel Leicht, Daniel Habig, Gerhard Schwaab, and Martina Havenith. J. Phys. Chem. A: January 19, 2015
  • Excitation of Sodium Atoms Attached to Helium Nanodroplets: The 3p-3s Transition Revisited. Evgeniy Loginov, Alberto Hernando, J. Alberto Beswick, Nadine Halberstadt, and Marcel Drabbels. J. Phys. Chem. A: January 12, 2015
  • Helium Droplets Doped with Sulfur and C60. Martina Harnisch, Nikolaus Weinberger, Stephan Denifl, Paul Scheier, and Olof Echt. J. Phys. Chem. C: December 23, 2014
  • Coating Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Cations with Helium Clusters. Florent Calvo. J. Phys. Chem. A: December 8, 2014
  • Graphdiyne Pores: “Ad Hoc” Openings for Helium Separation Applications. Massimiliano Bartolomei, Estela Carmona-Novillo, Marta I. Hernández, José Campos-Martínez, Fernando Pirani, and Giacomo Giorgi. J. Phys. Chem. C: December 2, 2014
  • Two-Color Infrared Predissociation Spectroscopy of C6H62+ Isomers Using Helium Tagging. Juraj Jašík, Dieter Gerlich, and Jana Roithová. J. Phys. Chem. A: November 17, 2014
  • Introduction to Density Functional Theory: Calculations by Hand on the Helium Atom. Kyle A. Baseden and Jesse W. Tye. J. Chem. Educ.: November 14, 2014
  • Optical and Electron Spin Resonance Studies of Xenon–Nitrogen–Helium Condensates Containing Nitrogen and Oxygen Atoms. Roman E. Boltnev, Igor B. Bykhalo, Irina N. Krushinskaya, Alexander A. Pelmenev, Vladimir V. Khmelenko, Shun Mao, Adil Meraki, Scott C. Wilde, Patrick T. McColgan, and David M. Lee. J. Phys. Chem. A: October 29, 2014
  • Ballistic Evaporation and Solvation of Helium Atoms at the Surfaces of Protic and Hydrocarbon Liquids. Alexis M. Johnson, Diane K. Lancaster, Jennifer A. Faust, Christine Hahn, Anna Reznickova, and Gilbert M. Nathanson. J. Phys. Chem. Lett.: October 22, 2014
  • y Gu, Engang Fu, Yongqiang Wang, Nan Li, Nathan Mara, and Julia R. Greer. Nano Lett.: August 1, 2014
  • Toward Plasmonics with Nanometer Precision: Nonlinear Optics of Helium-Ion Milled Gold Nanoantennas. Heiko Kollmann, Xianji Piao, Martin Esmann, Simon F. Becker, Dongchao Hou, Chuong Huynh, Lars-Oliver Kautschor, Guido Bösker, Henning Vieker, André Beyer, Armin Gölzhäuser, Namkyoo Park, Ralf Vogelgesang, Martin Silies, and Christoph Lienau. Nano Lett.: July 22, 2014
  • Morphological Changes of Tungsten Surfaces by Low-Flux Helium Plasma Treatment and Helium Incorporation via Magnetron Sputtering. Santhosh Iyyakkunnel, Laurent Marot, Baran Eren, Roland Steiner, Lucas Moser, Daniel Mathys, Marcel Düggelin, Patrick Chapon, and Ernst Meyer. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces: June 24, 2014