Helium, critical for the technology of today, and the future.
Helium is used in the manufacturing process of semiconductors, an essential component of computer chips used in all electronic devices.
Fibre Optic Cables
The manufacturing of fiber optic cables utilizes an all-helium environment to prevent air bubbles from being trapped in the optical fibers. Computer hard drives are also utilizing helium atmosphere to allow the disk to spin more freely, and create less heat.
The single largest application for helium is in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners for the medical industry. The liquid helium (approximately 1,700L per scanner) is used to drop the temperature sufficiently for the copper magnet to superconduct.
In aerospace, liquid helium is used as a pressure agent for cryogenic fuel tanks in space rockets. As the rocket burns fuel (liquid oxygen or hydrogen), the fuel tank is purged with liquid helium to maintain pressure. When you see a rocket on the launch pad with gas emanating from its side, it is likely that this is helium boiling at -268.9ºC.
Deep Sea Diving
The artificial atmosphere found in a divers “oxygen tank” is actually a mixture of 80% helium and 20% oxygen. The addition of helium in a high pressure environment makes it easier for the diver to breathe in the air.
Welding and Fabrication
Helium is used in arc welding as a shielding gas because it is non-reactive and allows for a consistent weld at a higher heat transfer, allowing the fabricator to work more quickly and efficiently.
Among the more critical uses for helium is leak detection. As it diffuses through solids three times faster than air, the notoriously hard-to-contain helium gas is used to detect leaks in the hulls of ships, air-conditioning systems in cars, and high-pressure equipment like vacuums and cryogenic systems.
Used in many components of EV and ICE vehicles including semiconductors, leak detection, laser cutting, welding and testing.
After the recent (2022) success of the US National Ignition Facility in California, Fusion power is a step closer to reality. If so, then significant quantities of liquid helium will be required as a cryogenic medium and coolant.
Helium filled hard drives are set to become the new norm, using less energy and increasing storage capacity. Quantum computing is also likely to use liquid helium as a coolant.
The new generation of hybrid air vehicles are potential large new consumers of helium. A greener more sustainable form of air cargo transport.