Most of the helium comes from natural gas deposits. Despite being the commonest element in the universe, helium is quite rare on the earth. Helium is generated deep underground through the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium. This process may take ages (centuries to millennia) to form helium. After its formation, helium seeps through the earth’s crust to get trapped in pockets of natural gas. It is then extracted from these pockets by using specialized equipment. Most of the world’s helium demand is fulfilled through the gas deposits in the United States such as those in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Smaller supplies exist in Canada, Qatar, China, Algeria, Russia, and Poland. Being lighter than air, helium can overcome gravity and escape the earth to reach outer space. Thus, helium sources are considered as nonreplenishable or nonrenewable sources, as it is difficult to recycle helium.
What is helium?
Helium is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas. This natural gas is inert, which means it does not react with other substances. Helium is the second lightest element known, hydrogen is the lightest. It is also the second most abundant element in the universe (hydrogen being the first). Being lighter than air, helium gas is often used to inflate balloons. Besides its use in inflating balloons for celebrations, helium is also used for several other purposes such as for inflating blimps (airship); a cooling medium for equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners and satellite instruments; for breathing (mixed with oxygen) during deep-sea diving; and for manufacturing fiber optics, microscopes, and barcode scanners. A mixture of helium and oxygen, called heliox, is used in medicine for treating patients with lung conditions such as severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Why does one’s voice change when they inhale helium?
Inhaling helium makes a person’s voice sound squeaky. The voice after inhaling helium is often compared with that of chipmunks or ducks in animation movies. This may be one of the fun activities at parties. Although the voice seems high-pitched after helium inhalation, in reality, the pitch of the voice is not changed by helium gas. The change in the quality of voice is because of helium’s density. As helium is denser than the regular air we breathe in, it causes sound waves to move much faster through it. This changes the tone or sound quality or timbre of the voice, making it sound high and squeaky. The vocal cords are structures present in the voice box or larynx. When a person speaks, the vocal cords vibrate to produce the sound. The vibration is not at a single frequency; there is a whole mix of different frequencies being generated. When helium is inhaled, the higher-pitched frequencies resonate more, while the lower-pitched ones resonate less. This amplifies the higher-pitched frequencies to the extent that the lower-pitched ones are masked to a great deal. It results in a flat chipmunk-like sound.
Is inhaling helium dangerous?
Although it seems a fun activity, helium inhalation should not be done, as it can cause serious consequences. Breathing too much helium may suffocate a person because their body gets deprived of oxygen. The state of reduced oxygen supply in the body due to abnormal breathing is called asphyxiation. Helium inhalation can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. Children can suffer irreversible lung damage. Excess helium inhalation can make a person quickly pass-out, further resulting in physical injuries if they are alone or in dangerous surroundings.
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