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The Science of Helium Balloons

With five kids in my house, we have a multitude of birthday parties each year. Whether we have a big gathering at home or an intimate dinner out, we try to make birthdays special. Part of what makes each birthday special is the decorations. What’s a birthday celebration without balloons?? Balloons filled with helium!

I never grow tired of seeing the wonder on the face of a child who sees a helium balloon for the first time. And I’ve had more than my share of belly laughs over pets who are absolutely terrified of the colorful, floating orbs. What must they think? Seeing these objects that defy the laws of gravity?
But how do they work? What makes them float? How do they fly?

It comes down to weight. The air we breathe is largely made up of nitrogen. Nitrogen weighs 1.2506 grams per liter. Helium weighs only 0.1785 grams per liter. The lightweight helium displaces the heavier air. The pressure from the air around the balloon (along with the temperature of the air) “pushes” the balloon upwards.

It is very similar to how objects float in water. Have you ever tried to hold a sealed, empty, plastic bottle underwater? That can be a workout! This is because the bottle is buoyant. The air in the bottle is lighter than the water around it. Therefore, the bottle is “pushed” upward. Just like the bottle is buoyant in water, a helium balloon is buoyant in air.
Why does helium make my voice squeaky?

Disclaimer: DO NOT inhale helium. It can be dangerous, or even fatal.

When we speak, vocal chords in our throat vibrate, and that’s what makes the sound of our voice. Think of how the strings vibrate on a violin or guitar to make music, your throat is similar. The density of the air around us, causes our vocal chords to vibrate at a certain speed.

When a person breathes in helium, it travels over their vocal chords. Helium is not as dense as air. Therefore, vocal chords do not have to work as hard to vibrate, so they vibrate faster! The faster the vibration, the squeakier the person’s voice.

Here are a few facts about helium gas which you may find interesting:

Discovered by Sir William Ramsay in London, and independently by P.T. Cleve and N.A. Langlet in Uppsala, Sweden in 1895 Helium is a colourless, odourless, tasteless inert gas at room temperature and makes up about 0.0005% of the air we breathe

During World War II, the army and navy funded experimental plants that produced non-explosive helium as a replacement for the explosive hydrogen used in observation balloons and airships. Once widely available, the element became crucial in ending the war.

Helium is the second lightest chemical element, with many unique properties. It is so named because it was first detected in light patterns in the sun (Greek helios) before it was detected on earth. All gases will condense into a liquid if cooled enough, but helium has the lowest condensation point of any substance (–269°C or –452°F).

We’re all familiar with helium, the very light gas that makes balloons and airships float in the air. Helium has an important safety advantage—it cannot burn or explode like hydrogen. It is also a vital part of air mixtures for breathing by deep-sea divers—unlike nitrogen, it hardly dissolves in blood or lipids (fatty compounds) even at high pressures

Helium Balloons work by the law of buoyancy. As long as the helium plus the balloon is lighter than the air it displaces, the balloon will float in the air. Helium is a lot lighter than air.

Helium Balloon Gas makes balloons float. Helium is lighter than air and just as the heaviest things will tend to fall to the bottom, the lightest things will rise to the top.

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So why are helium and hydrogen so much lighter than air?
It’s because the hydrogen and helium atoms are lighter than a nitrogen atom. They have fewer electrons, protons and neutrons than nitrogen atoms do, and that makes them lighter (the approximate atomic weight of hydrogen is 1, helium is 4 and nitrogen is 14). Approximately the same number of atoms of each of these elements fills approximately the same amount of space. Therefore, the gases made of lighter atoms are lighter.

What causes helium balloons to lose their lift after a day or two?
In brief, because the helium leaks out, they shrink, and become heavier than the volume of air they displace. This causes them to lose buoyancy and “sink” in the air. The weight balance that keeps a balloon afloat does not leave a lot of room for leakage, so once a little leaks out the balloon falls

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Sometimes you can catch a balloon right around the time it is neutrally buoyant, and applying heat (your hand, for instance) or cold (rub with ice cube) will change its volume just enough to make it rise or sink in

If you put helium in a balloon and let go of the balloon, the balloon rises until it pops. When it pops, the helium that escapes has no reason to stop — it just keeps going and leaks out into space. Therefore, in the atmosphere there is very little helium at any given time. The helium that is there comes from alpha particles emitted by radioactive decay. In places that have a lot of uranium ore, natural gas tends to contain high concentrations of helium (up to 7 percent). This makes sense, since the decay of uranium emits lots of alpha particles and a natural gas pocket tends to be a sealed container underground. Helium is cryogenically distilled out of natural gas to produce the helium we put in balloons.


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