Helium's noncombustibility and buoyancy (second only to hydrogen) make it the most suitable gas for balloons and other lighter-than-air craft. A mixture of helium and oxygen is often supplied as a breathing mixture for deep-sea divers and caisson workers and is used in decompression chambers; because helium is less soluble in human blood than nitrogen, its use reduces the risk of caisson disease, or the "bends." Helium can also be used wherever an unreactive atmosphere is needed, e.g., in electric arc welding, in growing crystals of silicon and germanium for semiconductors, and in refining titanium and zirconium metals. It is also used to pressurize the fuel tanks of liquid-fueled rockets. Liquid helium is essential for many low temperature applications (see low-temperature physics).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.