What Is Helium? - Definition & Concept

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: What is Hydrogen? - Formula, Production & Uses

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Discovery & Naming
  • 1:03 What Is Helium?
  • 2:06 Helium's Properties
  • 2:54 Helium Around Us
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Login or Sign up


Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account