High jinks with helium

| June 14, 2021

Helium (from Greek: ἥλιος, helios, lit. ’sun’) is a chemical element with the symbol He and atomic number 2. It is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas, the first in the noble gas group in the periodic table. Its boiling point is the lowest among all the elements. Helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the observable universe (hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant).

It is present at about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined. Its abundance is similar to this in both the Sun and in Jupiter. This is due to the very high nuclear binding energy (per nucleon) of helium-4, with respect to the next three elements after helium.

This helium-4 binding energy also accounts for why it is a product of both nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. Most helium in the universe is helium-4, the vast majority of which was formed during the Big Bang. Large amounts of new helium are being created by nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars.

Most of the helium on Earth is produced when uranium and thorium decay in the Earth’s crust. This leaves pockets of helium trapped in the crust close to collections of natural gas and oil. Thus, when companies drill for natural gas, out comes helium at the same time.

Liquid helium is used in cryogenics (its largest single use, absorbing about a quarter of production), particularly in the cooling of superconducting magnets, with the main commercial application being in MRI scanners. Helium’s other industrial uses – as a pressurizing and purge gas, as a protective atmosphere for arc welding, and in processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers – account for half of the gas produced. A well-known but minor use is as a lifting gas in balloons and airships.

As with any gas whose density differs from that of air, inhaling a small volume of helium temporarily changes the timbre and quality of the human voice. In scientific research, the behaviour of the two fluid phases of helium-4 (helium I and helium II) is important to researchers studying quantum mechanics (in particular the property of superfluidity) and to those looking at the phenomena, such as superconductivity, produced in matter near absolute zero.

On Earth, it is relatively rare – 5.2 ppm by volume in the atmosphere. Most terrestrial helium present today is created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements (thorium and uranium, although there are other examples), as the alpha particles emitted by such decays consist of helium-4 nuclei. This radiogenic helium is trapped with natural gas in concentrations as great as 7% by volume, from which it is extracted commercially by a low-temperature separation process called fractional distillation.

Previously, terrestrial helium – a non-renewable resource because once released into the atmosphere, it promptly escapes into space – was thought to be in increasingly short supply. However, recent studies suggest that helium produced deep in the earth by radioactive decay can collect in natural gas reserves in larger than expected quantities, in some cases, having been released by volcanic activity.

When Australia came to the ‘rescue’ of the East Timorese a few years ago we were informed that we were protecting the people from an aggressive Indonesia. It appeared later that we were more interested in the petroleum assets in the Timor Sea. We were so interested that we, apparently, bugged the Timorese parliamentary group discussing the share of the undersea production, thus gaining enough background to produce and agreement which was to our great benefit. That issue is still under judicial privilege with the ASIO informer and his solicitor under arrest with a secret trial which has been going on for years. One wonders who chose the judge in these procedings.

It now appears that a large amount of Helium is being extracted from the wells. The ‘agreement’ signed between Australia and the Timorese specifically disregards and Helium and consequently all proceeds go to the multinationals mining in the area. Australia is also missing out on these benefits. One can only conclude from this that a considerable ‘incentive’ changed hands in the process. It would be interesting to know who were the ministers and senior public servants involved in the writing of the agreement and what they are doing now.