~ The History of Helium ~
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One chapter will be presented each week on Wednesdays.
Credit: Seibel, C.W. (1968). Helium child of the sun. Lawrence/London, University Press of Kansas
Chapter 1 The Golden Ray
On Armistice Day, 1918, 750 black steel cylinders, with orange bellybands and tops, attracted little attention on the docks at New Orleans. No one who saw them knew they were filled with a product that had never been seen, smelled, or tasted. Ordinarily, they might have been under heavy guard, for at prices in effect six months earlier, their contents would have been worth at least 300 million dollars. Originally destined for the war front, they were now on their way back to Fort Worth, Tex.
When the United States entered World War I, the entire American supply of the mysterious substance had rested on the top shelf of a chemical laboratory at the University of Kansas. The three small glass flasks in which it was held were seldom noticed. They were no larger than soft-drink bottles and appeared to be empty. They were obviously important, however, for they had been placed upside down with their necks immersed in a trough of mercury to eliminate the possibility of leakage. On their yellowed labels was written in faded ink, “He 1905.” Dr. H. P. Cady (see Plate 1), head of the chemistry department of the University of Kansas, had filled the containers with material extracted from a gas well which blew in just off the main street of the little town of Dexter, Kan. Cady often remarked that he did not know why he saved the “stuff”; there was no known use for it.
Then, America was at war, and several million dollars were spent in producing the material under the camouflaged names of “C” gas, “X” gas, and finally “argon.” Its true name, “helium,” was carefully avoided.
Produced in quantity too late to affect the outcome of the First World War, helium was to play a major role in World War II. Operating in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean – an area of three million square miles – helium-filled navy patrol blimps (see Plate II) safely convoyed more than 89,000 ocean-going vessels, transporting troops and war supplies, without the loss of a single ship to enemy submarines. Those blimps were equipped with sensitive listening devices that could be lowered into the water to detect the noise of an operating electric fan in a submarine five miles distant. Subs gave such convoys a wide berth. Admiral Doenitz is said to have admitted that the German U-boats could not really cope with what he called the “Little Zeppelins” of the US Navy.
Now, since the Navy’s blimps have been decommissioned, one might well ask, “What is helium’s role today?”
In 1930, an answer to the question, “What is helium good for?” would have been simple: for lighter-than-air craft, in deep-sea diving, and to make it easier for persons suffering with asthma to breathe. The only place on earth where it was being produced in quantity was at the government’s plant in Amarillo, Tex. Now all is changed. The uses of the gas, already legion, are growing daily. In 1965, there were 11 multimillion-dollar helium plants in this country, five of them owned and operated by the U.S. Government. There was one in Canada. Their combined production is 700 times that of the Bureau’s initial plant at Amarillo.
With the advent of the United States intercontinental ballistic missile program, orders for helium rose sharply. During the period 1955-60, the demand tripled. Fortunately, through foresight and teamwork, the Bureau of Mines was able to meet the increasing need, for – denied the use of helium, — many of the larger missiles available at the time would have been unable to leave the ground.
Atlas, Titan I, Agena, Centaur, and Saturn rockets all depend on helium in a variety of ways. Stainless steel tubing, liquid oxygen containers, instruments, and even the thin outer skin of the Atlas are welded in a protective atmosphere of helium to shield the weld metal from oxidation and other damaging effects of the air. Helium also promotes penetration of the weld through the material, permits higher weld travel speed, and prevents disintegration of the tungsten electrode. The missile control systems use helium to actuate instruments and valves. Here the systems can be smaller and lighter than would be possible otherwise, because helium will flow faster and respond quicker than any other inert gas. Finally, helium provides the force to push fuel and liquid oxygen to the pumps feeding the rocket engines. In the Atlas, well known as the spacecraft that lifted our first astronauts into space, helium replaces the fuel and oxygen as these liquids are consumed and provides enough pressure inside the paper-thin walls to maintain structural rigidity in flight. Leaks in the Atlas’ system are detected with helium, and the systems are purged with helium before and after test firings. It may also be used as a purge and coolant gas in hydrogen-propelled nuclear-fueled rockets.
Present-day wind tunnels are a far cry from the early marvels which allowed aircraft models to be studied at velocities of 300 miles an hour. Now, with the aid of helium, small replicas of our space vehicles and experimental planes are tested in wind tunnels in which speeds of more than 20,000 miles per hour can be obtained. Helium provides the push needed to reach high air velocities and conducts the generated heat away from the test section. The successful design of rockets, airplanes, missiles, and manned spacecraft is an outgrowth of such studies.
If man is to continue his exploration of space, he needs to know more about the various conditions he will encounter and have to live with. In order for him to be safe, it is necessary to simulate outer space environments with tests which will assure bringing future space travelers back alive. The magnitude and importance of such an undertaking is demonstrated by the completion by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of two 40-foot space simulators at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. These simulators use extremely cold gaseous helium to produce a near-perfect vacuum like that found in outer space. Larger chambers are planned.
An earlier space environment chamber, constructed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Lewis Research Center at Cleveland, Ohio, uses liquid helium to create a vacuum so low that present-day instruments are unable to measure it accurately, and to provide test areas that are held at temperatures approaching absolute zero (approximately – 459.69 degrees F).
The dangers of the Van Allen radiation belt are of great concern to those studying space travel. To offset the hazard, scientists propose to utilize counteracting magnetic fields which can be produced with the air of liquid helium and superconductors. An electric current, once started, will continue to flow in a superconductor and thus maintain a magnetic field as long as the liquid helium lasts.
The Atomic Energy Commission finds so many needs for helium, which does not become radioactive, that it is another of the nation’s larger users. A good conductor of heat, with relatively low pumping requirements, helium is used in gas-cooled nuclear reactors. The first such reactor in the world to use helium as a coolant was built by the Atomic Energy Commission at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Helium is pumped through the reactor core, where it is heated to 1050 degrees F at 315 psig, and then is pumped to a steam generator to produce steam. The steam turns a turbine to produce electricity. Helium was selected primarily because of its inertness, especially at elevated temperatures. As materials are developed to withstand higher temperatures in gas-cooled reactors, helium’s use becomes even more important.
Small vacuum chambers which simulate space conditions must be leak tight. After the chamber is sealed in plastic, helium is pumped inside the plastic bag, and sensitive instruments check any leak into the inner vacuum tank (see Plate XII).
Many metallurgical processes call for the exclusion of oxygen and even nitrogen, and helium gives a ready answer. About one-eighth of the helium now being produced is used for such purposes. The relatively new construction metal titanium, which is a little heavier than aluminum and a little stronger than steel, was first produced in an atmosphere of helium, as was its sister metal, zirconium.
Single crystals of germanium and silicon, so necessary to the production of transistors, must be grown in the absence of air, and filling the growing compartment with helium does the trick.
There is scarcely a hospital in the United States without a cylinder of helium in its operating rooms. Mixed with combustible anesthetic gases, it not only reduces the hazard of fire and explosion, but it also helps to clear the lungs after surgery.
Household refrigerators are almost trouble-free pieces of equipment that go on compressing and expanding their charge of refrigerant year after year. Part of this reliability stems from the rigorous tests that they receive before leaving the factory. Many are tested with helium to detect leaks in their refrigerant system. Detectable amounts of helium will pass through openings so minute that a quart of air would not leak out in two thousand years. Nearly 15 million cubic feet of helium is used each year for leak detection.
In a new analytical method known as chromatography, which has taken the country by storm since its recent inception, helium is used as a carrier gas. Only a small amount of helium is used in making each chromatograph, but in the aggregate as much helium is used for this purpose each year as was used for all purposes in 1940.
Then there is Telstar. Not only did the rocket which put it in orbit get help from helium, but the signals we receive reach us after being amplified by a MASER (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), which contains a ruby crystal operating in liquid helium at a temperature near absolute zero. Remove that liquid, and the faint signal from the satellite would be lost in a jumble of noises.
Helium played an important role in developing the gas LASER (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation), which is an optical counterpart of the MASER. In 1961, the first gas LASER to produce a continuous beam of light used a mixture of ten parts of helium to one part of neon.
Someday, the LASER may be used to transmit thousands of television programs or telephone conversations on a single beam of coherent light.
Helium enables engineers to trace the movements of gas within oil and gas fields. It is injected into selected wells, and its travels through the stratum are checked by analyzing the gas from withdrawal wells some distance away.
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are preserved by being sealed in an atmosphere of helium.
Liquid helium, first liquefied nearly 60 years ago and once as rare and useless as the gas itself, is just coming into its own. The total production was estimated in 1965 at 1,850 gallons a day. More than 600 research laboratories throughout the world use liquid helium to reach low temperatures that cannot be obtained in any other way.
Electronic computers are certainly among the wonders of modern science. The more elaborate ones need as much as 40,000 watts of electrical energy, and the space of a small house, and require air conditioning. The memory element alone may occupy the space of two executive-type desks. By the use of a closed-circuit liquid helium bath, memory elements no larger than a shoe box may be used with power requirements of less than one watt.
Scientists recognize two forms of the liquid, designated as helium I and helium II. At atmospheric pressure, helium I, the more common form, boils at -452 degrees F. Helium II is obtained by cooling helium I to -455 degrees F. At this temperature, the properties of the liquid helium undergo an amazing transition. It becomes a better conductor of heat than either copper or silver. It will pass through pores that would stop other liquids, and it flows uphill to seemingly defy the law of gravity.
Strangely enough, more helium is used as a lifting gas today in meteorological and research balloons than was ever used in the ill-fated dirigibles. These large balloons reach heights of 20 miles above the earth, permitting observation of space largely free of the influence of the earth’s atmosphere. Helium is also used as the lifting gas in advertising and toy balloons.