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helium

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Date: 2015
Publisher: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview; Brief article
Length: 384 words
Lexile Measure: 830L

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The substance that makes toy balloons float in the air is the chemical element helium. Helium is a gas that has no color, odor, or taste. It will not burn or react with other elements.

Where helium is found

Helium is commonly found in the atmosphere of stars. Helium is produced in a star when atoms of another element, hydrogen, combine. This process is called nuclear fusion. Astronomers in the 19th century discovered helium in the sun’s atmosphere. They named the element helium after the Greek word helios, meaning “sun.”

Most of the helium that exists on Earth occurs in deposits of natural gas. Gas deposits in the United States supply most of the world’s helium. Smaller supplies can be found in Qatar, Algeria, Russia, Canada, China, and Poland.

Properties

At room temperature helium is a gas. The temperature at which helium becomes a liquid is −452° F (−268.9° C). That temperature, known as helium’s boiling point, is lower than for any other chemical element. Unlike other elements, helium does not become a solid as the temperature drops. It becomes a solid only under very high pressure.

Helium is the second lightest element. The only element that is lighter is hydrogen. Helium is also the second most plentiful element in the universe, after hydrogen. Scientists estimate that helium makes up one fourth of the mass of the entire universe.

Uses

Helium has many uses. Its low boiling point makes it useful in scientific research involving low temperatures. Because helium is light, people use it to make blimps and weather balloons float in the air.

Deep-sea divers breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen underwater. The helium helps to prevent divers from getting poisoned by too much oxygen. Breathing too much helium is also dangerous, however. The body may not get enough oxygen, and the person could suffocate.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|XNNFSK459186416