Helium is one of the basic chemical elements. In its natural state, helium is a colorless gas known for its low density and low chemical reactivity. It is probably best known as a non-flammable substitute for hydrogen to provide the lift in blimps and balloons. Because it is chemically inert, it is also used as a gas shield in robotic arc welding and as a non-reactive atmosphere for growing silicon and germanium crystals used to make electronic semiconductor devices. Liquid helium is often used to provide the extremely low temperatures required in certain medical and scientific applications, including superconduction research.
Although helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, most of it exists outside of Earth's atmosphere. Helium wasn't discovered until 1868, when French astronomer Pierre Janssen and English astronomer Sir Joseph Lockyer were independently studying an eclipse of the Sun. Using spectrometers, which separate light into different bands of color depending on the elements present, they both observed a band of yellow light that could not be identified with any known element. News of their findings reached the scientific world on the same day, and both men are generally credited with the discovery. Lockyer suggested the name helium for the new element, derived from the Greek word helios for the sun.
In 1895, English chemist Sir William Ramsay found that cleveite, a uranium mineral, contained helium. Swedish chemists P.T. Cleve and Nils Langlet made a similar discovery at about the same time. This was the first time helium had been identified on Earth. In 1905, natural gas taken from a well near Dexter, Kansas, was found to contain as much as 2% helium. Tests of other natural gas sources around the world yielded widely varying concentrations of helium, with the highest concentrations being found in the United States.
During the early 1900s, the development of lighter-than-air blimps and dirigibles relied almost entirely on hydrogen to provide lift, even though it was highly flammable. During World War I, the United States government realized that non-flammable helium was superior to hydrogen and declared it a critical war material. Production was tightly controlled, and exports were curtailed. In 1925, the United States passed the first Helium Conservation Act which prohibited the sale of helium to nongovernmental users. It wasn't until 1937, when the hydrogen-filled dirigible Hindenburg exploded while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, that the restrictions were lifted and helium replaced hydrogen for commercial lighter-than-air ships.
During World War II, helium became a critical war material again. One of its more unusual uses was to inflate the tires on long-range bomber aircraft. The lighter weight of helium allowed the plane to carry 154 lb (70 kg) of extra fuel for an extended range.
After the war, demand for helium grew so rapidly that the government imposed the Helium Act Amendments in 1960 to purchase and store the gas for future use. By 1971, the demand had leveled off and the helium storage program was canceled. A few years later, the government started storing helium again. As of 1993, there were about 35 billion cubic feet (1.0 billion cubic meters) of helium in government storage.
Today, the majority of the helium-bearing natural gas sources are within the United States. Canada, Poland, and a few other countries also have significant sources.
Helium is generated underground by the radioactive decay of heavy elements such as uranium and thorium. Part of the radiation from these elements consists of alpha particles, which form the nuclei of helium atoms. Some of this helium finds its way to the surface and enters the atmosphere, where it quickly rises and escapes into space. The rest becomes trapped under impermeable layers of rock and mixes with the natural gases that form there. The amount of helium found in various natural gas deposits varies from almost zero to as high as 4% by volume. Only about one-tenth of the working natural gas fields have economically viable concentrations of helium greater than 0.4%.
Helium can also be produced by liquefying air and separating the component gases. The production costs for this method are high, and the amount of helium contained in air is very low. Although this method is often used to produce other gases, like nitrogen and oxygen, it is rarely used to produce helium.
Helium is usually produced as a byproduct of natural gas processing. Natural gas contains methane and other hydrocarbons, which are the principal sources of heat energy when natural gas is burned. Most natural gas deposits also contain smaller quantities of nitrogen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, helium, and other non-combustible materials, which lower the potential heat energy of the gas. In order to produce natural gas with an acceptable level of heat energy, these impurities must be removed. This process is called upgrading.
There are several methods used to upgrade natural gas. When the gas contains more than about 0.4% helium by volume, a cryogenic distillation method is often used in order to recover the helium content. Once the helium has been separated from the natural gas, it undergoes further refining to bring it to 99.99+% purity for commercial use.
Here is a typical sequence of operations for extracting and processing helium.
Because this method utilizes an extremely cold cryogenic section as part of the process, all impurities that might solidify—such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and certain heavy hydrocarbons—must first be removed from the natural gas in a pretreatment process to prevent them from plugging the cryogenic piping.
Natural gas is separated into its major components through a distillation process known as fractional distillation. Sometimes this name is shortened to fractionation, and the vertical structures used to perform this separation are called fractionating columns. In the fractional distillation process, the nitrogen and methane are separated in two stages, leaving a mixture of gases containing a high percentage of helium. At each stage the level of concentration, or fraction, of each component is increased until the separation is complete. In the natural gas
Crude helium must be further purified to remove most of the other materials. This is usually a multi-stage process involving several different separation methods depending on the purity of the crude helium and the intended application of the final product.
Helium is distributed either as a gas at normal temperatures or as a liquid at very low temperatures. Gaseous helium is distributed in forged steel or aluminum alloy cylinders at pressures in the range of 900-6,000 psi (6-41 MPa or 60-410 atm). Bulk quantities of liquid helium are distributed in insulated containers with capacities up to about 14,800 gallons (56,000 liters).
The Compressed Gas Association establishes grading standards for helium based on the amount and type of impurities present. Commercial helium grades start with grade M, which is 99.995% pure and contains limited quantities of water, methane, oxygen, nitrogen, argon, neon, and hydrogen. Other higher grades include grade N, grade P, and grade G. Grade G is 99.9999% pure. Periodic sampling and analysis of the final product ensures that the standards of purity are being met.
In 1996, the United States government proposed that the government-funded storage program for helium be halted. This has many scientists worried. They point out that helium is essentially a waste product of natural gas processing, and without a government storage facility, most of the helium will simply be vented into the atmosphere, where it will escape into space and be lost forever. Some scientists predict that if this happens, the known reserves of helium on Earth may be depleted by the year 2015.
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http://www.intercorr.com/periodic/2.htm (This website contains a summary of the history, sources, properties, and uses of helium.)
— Chris Cavette