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This month – on August 18th, in fact – noble gas helium celebrated its 150th birthday, initially discovered back in 1868 by French scientist Jules Janssen. He was looking at the sun’s atmosphere during a solar eclipse using an instrument that separated the light into a spectrum, later realising that he could observe this even without an eclipse – eventually spotting a yellow line in the resulting data.

Moving on from this a few months later, English scientist Norman Lockyer also spotted this yellow line, suggesting that it was in fact evidence of a new element… which was later christened helium.

According to Inside Science, it took a further 27 years before helium was found inside a mineral called cleveite, this time by chemists William Ramsay, Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet.

At the turn of the century, helium was liquified for the first time ever, thanks to one Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Liquid helium is very clever because it can be used to cool everything from new materials to superconducting magnets in MRI machines. This is apparently the biggest single use of helium today, making up approximately a quarter of all production.

Are we running out of helium?

Unfortunately, supplies of helium have been running short (which is why calls have been issued in the past to ban it for use in balloons and other non-essential pursuits), but a few years ago a huge source of helium gas was discovered in the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania.

According to New Scientist, the reserve was so big that it could fill around 600,000 Olympic swimming pools!
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