What Is Helium? - Definition & Concept

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  • 0:01 Discovery & Naming
  • 1:03 What Is Helium?
  • 2:06 Helium's Properties
  • 2:54 Helium Around Us
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

In this lesson, explore how the gas helium was discovered and learn about its properties. Learn how helium is used every day, from inflating party balloons to propelling spacecraft.

The Discovery and Naming of Helium

Like the beginning of an old joke, the story of helium starts with a French astronomer, Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen, and a British astronomer, Norman Lockyer, staring at the sun. Viewing the 1868 solar eclipse independent of one another, both Janssen and Lockyer noticed the same unidentified line in the gases rising off the sun. The line was bright and yellow, but they didn't know much more.

Janssen didn't do anything with his observation, but Lockyer decided this mysterious line was an undiscovered element and named it helium, taken from the Greek word for the sun, helios. Lockyer tried to research this new element but didn't get very far. It wasn't until 1895 that another British scientist, Sir William Ramsay, was able to isolate helium in a laboratory.

The only problem was that Lockyer thought helium was a metal, so he gave the element the ending -ium, a suffix applied to metallic elements. Ramsay soon figured out helium was not a metal but a gas. Already in use by other British scientists for several years, the inaccurate name remained.

What Is Helium?

Atoms are the teeny-tiny building blocks of all matter, and they contain even smaller parts called protons, neutrons, and electrons. It is the number of protons in the center, or nucleus, of an atom which makes each type of atom unique. Helium is an element, which means it is made of only one type of atom, the helium atom. Helium atoms always have two protons each, and changing its number of protons would make it a different element altogether.

Most things in our world are combinations of elements called a mixture, including chemically bonded elements called compounds. Even the air around us is oxygen, nitrogen, and the compound carbon dioxide. Elements are pure substances that cannot be broken down any further.

Because each helium atom always has two protons, helium's atomic number is two. Elements are organized on the periodic table of elements based on their atomic number. This puts helium at the far right corner of the periodic table, second after hydrogen. Each element is also given a symbol, a letter or letters that each element is known by. The symbol for helium is He.

Helium's Properties

Elements are grouped with other elements based on similar properties, or traits. Helium is in a column with other gases that have no color and no odor, the noble gases, which also include neon and argon. All of the gases in this vertical column, group 18, have a full outer electron shell of negatively-charged electrons, so they aren't likely to search out a reaction with other elements to obtain missing electrons to complete their outer shell. For this reason, the noble gases are also sometimes called the inert gases.

Many people associate helium with inflated party balloons. Another property of helium is that it is lighter than air, so it can make things like balloons float. In fact, helium is the second lightest element after hydrogen. Helium, like the other noble gases, has no color and no smell, so if you were to pop a balloon filled with helium, you would smell nothing and see nothing.

Helium Around Us

We are surrounded by things that contain helium, from natural gas to the sun. As an odorless, colorless gas, it's hard to know when helium is there, but it is the second most abundant element in the universe.

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