How Is Helium Made?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
helium balloons
Although helium is abundant in space, the type that's used for balloons and other purposes is extracted from natural gas and is not so easy to get at. IVAN SHUTOV/EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES Ivan Shutov/EyeEm/Getty Images

If you put helium in a balloon and let go, the balloon will rise until it reaches a height of about 33,000 feet (10 kilometers), at which point it will burst because the atmospheric pressure and the strength of the balloon's skin won't be enough to withstand the pressure of the gas inside [source: BBC Science Focus].

The helium that escapes is lighter than the other gases in the atmosphere, so it just keeps going and leaks into space. That's why there's only a trace amount of helium in the atmosphere [source: Jefferson Lab]. But where does helium come from?


Natural Radioactive Decay Forms Helium

Helium is abundant in space, where it's produced as a product of the fusion reaction inside stars such as the sun. The naturally occurring helium on Earth, though, comes from a different sort of process. Deep inside the Earth, radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium decay and turn into other elements. The byproduct of these reactions are tiny fragments called a-particles, which consist of two neutrons and two protons. Those particles pick up electrons from the environment around them and turn into helium, which gradually rises up through the crust and is emitted into the atmosphere, where it keeps rising until it gets into space [source: University of Pittsburgh].

Extracted Natural Gas Is Another Source

Fortunately for us, helium also gets into the natural gas that oil and gas drillers extract from the ground for use as fuel [source: University of Pittsburgh]. That gives us a supply that we can use for blowing up balloons, as well as for a wide variety of other industrial processes, ranging from arc welding to MRIs to manufacturing silicon chips for computers. There has to be a certain amount of helium in the natural gas — at least 0.3 percent by volume – to justify all the trouble of separating it from natural gas.

This is done through industrial processes that filter other impurities, such as water, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from the gas. Finally, a process called cryogenic processing is used to cool the gas and remove the methane that makes up most of it, leaving behind a crude form of helium that is about 50 to 70 percent pure, with small amounts of argon, neon and hydrogen making up the rest. Then, the crude helium is purified through another cooling and filtering process that results in a form of helium that's more than 99 percent pure [source: NAP].

Helium Production Issues

The problem is that there aren't that many places with natural gas fields that have enough helium in them, and extracting helium is hard to do efficiently and affordably and most of it comes from just a few sources, including the U.S. government's National Helium Reserve in Texas. With so much demand for helium for industry, there just isn't enough to go around. That shortage has hurt businesses such as Party City, a party supplies company, which has closed a significant number of stores [source: Gibson].

Related Articles



  • BBC Science Focus. "How high can a helium balloon float? " (May 13, 2019)
  • Gibson, Kate. "Deflated by helium shortage, Party City to close 45 stores." CBS News. May 10, 2019. (May 13, 2019)
  • Jefferson Lab. "The Element Helium. " (May 13, 2019) Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. "The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve. " 2000. (May 13, 2019)
  • Pfeiffer, Doreen. "The liquid gold of MRI." Siemens Healthineers. March, 4, 2021.
  • University of Pittsburgh. "Helium: Sources and Uses." (May 13, 2019)


How Is Helium Made FAQ

How is helium formed?
The radioactive decay of thorium and uranium causes the formation of helium. They are extremely unstable and tend to decay.
Where do we get helium gas from?
Almost all helium is extracted from natural gas. This supply of helium comes from underground gas fields that are located in the U.S. and Russia.
How do people collect helium?
Helium is mined alongside natural gas. This is a long process where a drill is used to drill wells very deep into the crust of the Earth. The drill rig has to penetrate the layer of the crust called Cap Rock in order to reach any natural gas reserves.
Can helium be made artificially?
Helium can be found in abundance all over the universe. In fact, it is the second most abundant element known to man. Because of its chemical composition, it is not possible to produce helium artificially, which is why it is extracted from natural gas wells.
Who uses the most helium?
The largest consumer of helium is NASA, which uses around 75 million cubic feet of helium. This is closely followed by the U.S. Department of Defense, which uses helium to cool oxygen and hydrogen used as rocket fuel.