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L.Srikumar Pai
B.Sc( Engg.), MIE, MIWWA, MICI
Civil Engineer & CAD Specialist
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( Informative speech given by Keerthana Jinachandran in the gavel club )

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Last week, I had attended a birthday party, wherein I had to witness the lavish usage of one of the unique elements on the earth.  It is even lighter than air. Now, can anyone guess what am I talking about?

Gavelier of the Day, fellow Gaveliers, respected Toastmasters and distinguished guests. I am talking about the wonder gas, HELIUM. The chemical representation of Helium is “He”.

In our solar system it is mostly found on the sun and, on the earth it was created over millions of years ago by the decay of metals and elements underground. The stock is lowering day by day. Many people think of helium as an essential ingredient that makes colorful party balloons float. But has anyone ever thought what would happen if suddenly there was no more helium in this world? If not, it’s high time to think.

As we all know, helium is a gas. Let me share with you a little more about Helium. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic gas. It heads the noble gas group in the periodic table. It’s boiling and melting points are the lowest among the elements and it exists only as a gas except in extreme conditions. Helium accounts for 24% of the elemental mass of our galaxy. Most helium in the universe is helium-4, and is believed to have been formed during the Big Bang.  

Let’s see how helium was found and how this wonder gas got the name ‘Helium’.

French astronomer Pierre Janssen first detected the presence of helium in an emission spectrum of the sun. He observed the spectrum on August 18, 1868 during a total solar eclipse. However, he saw a yellow line on the emission spectrum. He thought the mysterious yellow line was due to sodium. On October 20, 1868, English astronomer Norman Lockyer also detected a yellow line in a solar spectrum. He thought that it was caused by an element that was not found on the earth. Sir William Ramsay in March, 1895, treated the mineral cleveite with mineral acids and, when he analyzed the mixture, discovered a yellow line in the emission spectrum. This proved that a new element had indeed been found. That is how it was first discovered. Helium pays homage to Helios, a Greco-Roman sun God. And this is how helium got its name.

Now we all need to understand that helium is used in much more than party balloons. This important element does not catch fire, and it can get much colder than other gases, so it’s very good at keeping sensitive equipment from overheating. Helium is used to cool superconducting magnets in MRI scanners. Another medical application of helium can be found in the process of observing breathing. It is helpful in the treatment of chronic diseases like obstructive pulmonary, asthma, etc.  However, remember friends, continuous intake of helium can cause suffocation and eventually it can even result in death. It is used in refining titanium and zirconium metals. It is used to condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. As it can sustain much colder than other gases, helium is used in welding. It is used to give NASA rockets the right pressure. Helium is one of the elements to make certain computer and television screens. When scuba divers go deep diving they use oxygen with helium for easier underground breathing, as the normal air go poisonous as we go deeper.

Let me share with you some interesting facts about this wonder gas. The United States of America uses half of the world’s supply of helium. Helium is the second least reactive element. Of all the known gases, helium is the least soluble in water. An interesting feature of helium is that it can change human voice. Even a small amount of helium gas alters human voice to great extent i.e. the tone of human voice can change in helium-rich atmosphere. Instead of freezing, helium becomes a super-fluid at a temperature of -271°C. When it is cold, it can rise up the walls of its container and escape. Another interesting fact is that 6,000 helium filled balloons can lift and float a person of 35 Kgs into the air.

It is heard that there are underground deposits of helium in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, where there is a unique kind of rock that can trap this super-light gas. The government began stockpiling helium in 1925 so it would have enough to use in airships, which were considered an important military technology at that time.  

As the supply of the wonder gas is limited, Russia and Qatar have also built up helium processing plants.  

Experts are of the opinion that we can somehow manage the Helium needs of the next 25 years only. That means, Gaveliers - your birthday parties are probably safe, but what about the parties of your younger generations………?????

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