Asphyxial suicide by placing a plastic bag over the head, especially in combination with inhalation of gases, is a rarely described method of committing suicide. This article reports a case of suicidal asphyxiation by inhaling the inert gas helium inside a plastic bag. A 64-year-old man probably fol. ‘The discovery of the first inert gas compounds made it clear that inertness is a question of conditions and that, given the right conditions, even xenon will react. This is, however, a far cry. Helium is used in the semiconductor industry as an inert gas for growing semiconductor crystals, to quickly cool components, and to control heat transfer. Inert gas: A gas that is not toxic, which does not support human breathing and which reacts little or not at all with other substances. The common inert gases are nitrogen and the rare gases like helium, argon, neon, xenon and krypton. Flammable gas: a gas whose major hazard is flammability. Note that all flammable gases also act as asphyxiants.
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What is helium?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It is a colorless and odorless inert gas that has unique properties.
What makes helium so unique?
Of all the elements, helium is the most stable; it will not burn or react with other elements. Helium has the lowest melting and boiling points. It exists as a gas, except under extreme conditions. At temperatures near absolute zero, helium is a fluid; most materials are solid when cooled to such low temperatures.
Where does helium come from?
Helium is a non-renewable natural resource that is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits. Geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas make the natural gas in these areas some of the most helium-rich in the world (with concentrations between 0.3 percent and 2.7 percent).
What is helium used for, and why is it a strategic natural resource?
Perhaps the most familiar use of helium is as a safe, non-flammable gas to fill party and parade balloons. However, helium is a critical component in many fields, including scientific research, medical technology, high-tech manufacturing, space exploration, and national defense. Here are a few examples:
- The medical field uses helium in essential diagnostic equipment such as MRI’s. Helium-neon lasers are used in eye surgery.
- National defense applications include rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, surveillance craft, air-to-air missile guidance systems, and more.
- Helium is used to cool thermographic cameras and equipment used by search and rescue teams and medical personnel to detect and monitor certain physiological processes.
- Various industries use helium to detect gas leaks in their products. Helium is a safe tracer gas because it is inert. Manufacturers of aerosol products, tires, refrigerators, fire extinguishers, air conditioners and other devices use helium to test seals before their products come to market.
- Cutting edge space science and research requires helium. NASA uses helium to keep hot gases and ultra-cold liquid fuel separated during lift-off of rockets.
- Arc welding uses helium to create an inert gas shield. Similarly, divers and others working under pressure can use a mix of helium and oxygen to create a safe artificial breathing atmosphere.
- Helium is a protective gas in titanium and zirconium production and in growing silicon and germanium crystals.
- Since helium doesn’t become radioactive, it is used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
- Cryogenics, superconductivity, laser pointers, supersonic wind tunnels, cardiopulmonary resuscitation pumps, monitoring blimps used by the Border Patrol, and liquid fuel rockets all require helium in either their manufacture or use.
For many of these applications, there is no substitute for helium. Helium is a non-renewable resource found in recoverable quantities in only a few locations around the world, many of which are being depleted. Accordingly, the U.S. has important economic and national security interests in ensuring a reliable supply of helium.
What is the Federal role in managing this strategic resource?
The BLM operates and maintains a helium storage reservoir, enrichment plant, and pipeline system near Amarillo, Texas, that supplies over 40 percent of domestic demand for helium. The BLM supplies crude helium to private helium refining companies which in turn refine the helium and market it to consumers.
The BLM is also responsible for evaluating the Nation’s helium-bearing gas fields and providing responsible access to Federal land for managed recovery and disposal of helium. The Federal Helium Program is administered by the BLM’s Amarillo Field Office under the authority of the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013.
How is the Federal Helium Program Funded?
The Federal Helium Program operates using non-appropriated funds (i.e. money generated from the sale and storage of helium and other related non-tax revenues). With crude helium auctions and sales stopping October 1, 2018, program revenues for FY 2019 declined to $63 million dollars. After funding operations, the program continues to return about $30 million dollars to the U.S. Treasury.
Helium, along with neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon, is an inert gas (also known as a noble gas) – that is, it does not normally react with other elements to form chemical compounds. Unlike most of these, however, helium is, at least for us, a very common gas. Despite lacking the usual property of such gases – eight electrons in its outer atomic shell – helium is still classified as an inert gas because its outer shell, which holds just two electrons, is still full.
THE INERT/NOBLE GASES
The discovery of helium during the 1800s paralleled the discovery of the inert gases more generally. Beginning with Henry Cavendish in the late 1700s, early chemists realized that air contained small amounts of a special gas which did not participate in any chemical reactions. In the late 1800s, further research by John Strutt Lord Rayleigh confirmed the existence of this gas, and called it argon, borrowing as inspiration a Greek term for “inactive.” Shortly afterward, William Crookes identified another non-reacting gas given off by uranium samples, and called it helium.
In chemical terms, we now understand why these mysterious gases did not react as expected. The “inert gases” – since renamed noble gases, because under extremely specific conditions they can actually be made to react actively with other chemicals – are six gases with no colour and no smell: helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon. To understand why they behave this way, it is necessary to delve very deeply into atomic theory.
Atoms contain three basic building blocks: protons and neutrons which are packed very closely together in a dense nucleus, and electrons which zip around the nucleus at high speed. Although the paths these electrons travel are effectively random, rather than the coherent orbits described in the early twentieth century by Ernest Rutherford (which still form the basis for much high school-level chemistry), it is still useful to think of these electrons as sticking within distinct orbits or “shells,” of varying distance from the nucleus of their atom. Usually the outermost shell can safely hold up to eight electrons, although with hydrogen and helium (because of their extremely small nuclei), the outer shell holds only two electrons.
Ionic bonds form between elements, creating chemical compounds, when atoms with partially empty outer shells come together. Some elements (those on the left of the periodic table) tend to give off free electrons, reducing their number in the outermost shell until it is entirely empty; those on the right of the periodic table, except for the noble gases themselves, tend to take electrons from other atoms, filling up their outer shell entirely. This leads to the formation of such commonly known compounds as table salt (sodium chloride), in which sodium gives up one electron and chlorine gains one electron.
Inert gases, however, already have full outer shells of electrons. Consequently, they tend neither to give away free electrons, nor to take electrons from other atoms. For quite some time, it was believed that it would be entirely impossible to create compounds from noble gases. Scientists now realize that it is difficult but not impossible, under carefully controlled conditions. Specifically, a number of compounds have been created using the heavier noble gases. However, no confirmed compounds currently exist containing either helium or neon.
Helium Inert Gas Uses
HELIUM AS A NOBLE/INERT GAS
All other noble or inert gases operate on an effectively identical premise: their outer shell is capable of holding eight electrons, and it holds electrons – and, therefore, it neither takes nor gives up any electrons when mixing with other chemicals. Helium is slightly different: its outer shell is only capable of holding two electrons. However, it is still filled to capacity, with just two electrons. As a result, helium does not form compounds with other chemical elements.
By contrast, hydrogen also has an outer shell capable of holding two electrons, but it actually has only one electron. For this reason hydrogen can form many compounds, including one which will be most familiar to readers, water (H2O), in which each of the hydrogen atoms gives up one electron, and the oxygen atom gains two electrons. In contrast, helium neither gives nor takes electrons, and therefore does not form compounds.