About Helium

What is helium?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It is a colorless and odorless inert gas that has unique properties.

What makes helium so unique?
Of all the elements, helium is the most stable; it will not burn or react with other elements. Helium has the lowest melting and boiling points. It exists as a gas, except under extreme conditions. At temperatures near absolute zero, helium is a fluid; most materials are solid when cooled to such low temperatures.

Where does helium come from?
Helium is a non-renewable natural resource that is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits. Geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas make the natural gas in these areas some of the most helium-rich in the world (with concentrations between 0.3 percent and 2.7 percent).

What is helium used for, and why is it a strategic natural resource?
Perhaps the most familiar use of helium is as a safe, non-flammable gas to fill party and parade balloons. However, helium is a critical component in many fields, including scientific research, medical technology, high-tech manufacturing, space exploration, and national defense.  Here are a few examples:

  • The medical field uses helium in essential diagnostic equipment such as MRI’s.  Helium-neon lasers are used in eye surgery.
  • National defense applications include rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, surveillance craft, air-to-air missile guidance systems, and more.
  • Helium is used to cool thermographic cameras and equipment used by search and rescue teams and medical personnel to detect and monitor certain physiological processes. 
  • Various industries use helium to detect gas leaks in their products.  Helium is a safe tracer gas because it is inert. Manufacturers of aerosol products, tires, refrigerators, fire extinguishers, air conditioners and other devices use helium to test seals before their products come to market.
  • Cutting edge space science and research requires helium.  NASA uses helium to keep hot gases and ultra-cold liquid fuel separated during lift-off of rockets.
  • Arc welding uses helium to create an inert gas shield.  Similarly, divers and others working under pressure can use a mix of helium and oxygen to create a safe artificial breathing atmosphere.
  • Helium is a protective gas in titanium and zirconium production and in growing silicon and germanium crystals.
  • Since helium doesn’t become radioactive, it is used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
  • Cryogenics, superconductivity, laser pointers, supersonic wind tunnels, cardiopulmonary resuscitation pumps, monitoring blimps used by the Border Patrol, and liquid fuel rockets all require helium in either their manufacture or use.

For many of these applications, there is no substitute for helium.  Helium is a non-renewable resource found in recoverable quantities in only a few locations around the world, many of which are being depleted.  Accordingly, the U.S. has important economic and national security interests in ensuring a reliable supply of helium.