Chemical element, chemical symbol He, atomic number 2. A noble gas, it is colourless, odourless, tasteless, completely unreactive, and nontoxic. First found by spectroscopy of the Sun's atmosphere in 1868, it is the second most abundant and second-lightest element in the universe (after hydrogen). Helium makes up a tiny proportion of the atmosphere but as much as 7% of natural gas. It is the product of radioactive decay (see radioactivity) and is used in helium dating. It is used as an inert gas in welding, rocket propulsion, balloon flight, hyperbaric chambers, deep-sea diving (see nitrogen narcosis), gas chromatography, luminous signs, and cryogenics. Liquid helium, which exists only below 452 °F (268.9 °C, about 4° C above absolute zero), is a “quantum fluid” (see fluid mechanics; quantum mechanics), with unique properties, including superfluidity, superconductivity, and near-zero viscosity.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on helium, visit Britannica.com.

Seen & Heard

What made you look up helium? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.