The discovery of helium is an interesting tale that spans several decades and involves the efforts of multiple scientists. Helium, a noble gas, is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and plays a crucial role in various scientific and industrial applications.
The first indication of helium’s existence came from observations made during a solar eclipse in 1868. French astronomer Pierre Janssen and British astronomer Norman Lockyer independently noticed a yellow line in the spectrum of the sun that did not correspond to any known element. They hypothesized that it might be a new element and named it “helium” after the Greek word “helios,” meaning sun.
Nearly three decades later, in 1895, Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay and English chemist Lord Rayleigh conducted experiments to investigate the composition of atmospheric nitrogen. They found that nitrogen from the air they studied was slightly denser than nitrogen extracted from chemical compounds. Recognizing this discrepancy, they concluded that an unknown gas, which they named “argon,” was present in the atmosphere. Rayleigh published his findings, and Ramsay, intrigued by this new element, continued his research.
In 1895 and 1898, Ramsay successfully isolated helium on Earth for the first time. He analyzed a sample of the mineral cleveite, which contains helium, and later discovered helium in natural gas fields in the United States.
The discovery of helium held significant implications for scientific research, particularly in the field of cryogenics and its application in cooling scientific instruments. In 1908, Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes used liquid helium to achieve the first recorded instance of superconductivity, a groundbreaking phenomenon that occurs at extremely low temperatures.
Helium’s unique properties, such as its low boiling point and lack of reactivity, have made it crucial in various industrial applications, including cooling superconducting magnets in medical MRI machines, aerospace technology, and deep-sea diving equipment.
Due to its rarity on Earth, helium remains a valuable resource. Most of the world’s helium is extracted as a byproduct of natural gas processing, making the conservation and responsible use of this vital element essential.
In conclusion, the discovery of helium began with astronomical observations during a solar eclipse, leading to the identification of a spectral line indicative of an unknown element. Later, through scientific investigation and experiments, helium was isolated on Earth and recognized as a valuable resource with significant applications in various fields, making it an essential element in modern science and technology.