Helium is less dense than any other known gas except hydrogen and is about one seventh as dense as air. Extremely unreactive, it is an inert gas in Group 18 of the periodic table. Natural helium is a mixture of two stable isotopes, helium-3 and helium-4. In helium obtained from natural gas about one atom in 10 million is helium-3. The unstable isotopes helium-5, helium-6, and helium-8 have been synthesized. The alpha particles that are emitted from certain radioactive substances are identical to helium-4 nuclei (two protons and two neutrons).
Helium-4 is unusual in that it forms two different kinds of liquids. When it is cooled below 4.22°K (its boiling point at atmospheric pressure) it condenses to liquid helium-I, which behaves as an ordinary liquid. When liquid helium-I is cooled below about 2.18°K (at atmospheric pressure), liquid helium-II is formed. Liquid helium-II has a number of unusual properties. It is sometimes called a superfluid because it has extremely low viscosity. It also has extremely high heat conductivity and expands on cooling. It cannot be contained in an open beaker since a thin film of it creeps up the side, over the lip, and flows down the outside. The study of these phenomena is a part of low-temperature physics. When helium-3 is liquefied and cooled it does not exhibit the properties of liquid helium-II; this difference in properties between helium-3 and helium-4 can be explained in terms of quantum mechanics.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.