About Liquid Helium

Helium (He) boils at -452.1°F (-268.93°C or 4.2 K). Helium does not freeze at atmospheric pressure; solid helium only forms at pressures above 20 times atmospheric.  Liquid helium, because of its low boiling point, is used in many cryogenic systems when temperatures below the boiling point of nitrogen are needed.  A convenient way to cool many kinds of apparatus, such as the super-conducting magnet in an MRI, is to submerge them in liquid helium or liquid nitrogen.

Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, was discovered on the sun before it was found on the earth.  Pierre-Jules-César Janssen, a French astronomer, noticed a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum while studying a total solar eclipse in 1868.  Sir Norman Lockyer, an English astronomer, realized that this line, with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers, could not be produced by any element known at the time.  It was hypothesized that a new element on the sun was responsible for this mysterious yellow emission.  This unknown element was named helium by Lockyer.

The hunt to find helium on earth ended in 1895.  Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, conducted an experiment with a mineral containing uranium called clevite.  He exposed the clevite to mineral acids and collected the gases that were produced.  He then sent a sample of these gases to two scientists, Lockyer and Sir William Crookes, who were able to identify the helium within.  Two Swedish chemists, Nils Langlet and Per Theodor Cleve, independently found helium in clevite at about the same time as Ramsay.