You may have seen a video circulating on the internet in recent years showing a collection of balloons exploding.
Most viewer’s reactions are the same as those in the video. Shock! This has led many to ask if helium gas is actually flammable and whether it can cause explosions such as this.
While helium is most commonly used in balloons, there are many other uses for this compressed gas. Because helium is extremely unreactive, it is used to provide a protective atmosphere when constructing fiber optics and semiconductors.
It can also be used to detect leaks such as in a car’s air conditioning system. And of course, it can be inhaled to create funny, high-pitched voices!
But, if people inhale this gas, surely it isn’t flammable, right? That is correct. Helium gas is not flammable or explosive. Helium is an inert gas meaning it is very stable and not very reactive in most conditions. Therefore, a balloon that is filled with helium will not explode.
“But, what about that video?” Well, today, we are going to discuss the properties of helium gas and find out why this isn’t as explosive and flammable as many believe. It’s time to clear up this helium debate once and for all.
Helium: Flammable or non-flammable?
So, as you know (because we mentioned it above), helium gas is not flammable. It is also not explosive. No matter how much you heat it up or cool it down below absolute zero to a liquid form, helium gas just refuses to catch fire.
There is no doubt that helium gas is one of the most stable elements on the planet. In other words, it is not very reactive when in contact with other elements. It is a noble gas that can be found on the periodic table of elements at number 2.
As we mentioned, helium gas can be used for a wide range of purposes from protecting fiber optics to filling up airbags in your cars. In fact, it is such a stable gas that it is often used as a cooling agent around rocket engines. Talk about reliability and versatility!
Other uses for helium include cooling MRI machines, welding, and helping in manufacturing electronics.
Compared to the air around us, helium gas is much less dense. This is why it rises. For instance, fill a latex balloon with helium and it will continue to rise. Even something as large as a blimp uses helium to rise from the ground.
Why is helium mistaken for a flammable gas?
Today, most people believe that helium is flammable. Thankfully, after this article, you can inform your friends and family of your newfound wisdom. But why is this belief so commonly held?
The main reason may go back to the awful Hindenburg blimp disaster. This blimp exploded in mid-air causing the death of 35 people.
However, many believe that the blimp was filled with helium but this was not the case. The Hindenburg was fitted with hydrogen canisters. One of these began to leak and met static electricity which ignited the airship.
Another reason why people think helium is flammable is that it is a gas. Just the mere mention of gas and people immediately think of something that can ignite easily.
And, of course, the video of balloons exploding and certain articles have described them as helium balloons. Well, helium didn’t cause those balloons to explode. As with the Hindenburg, the balloons were filled with hydrogen.
Helium-filled balloons will not explode. Hydrogen-filled balloons can. Let’s find out why.
Is hydrogen gas flammable?
Hydrogen gas is indeed flammable. However, just like helium gas, it is lighter than air so it will want to rise. It is, in fact, even lighter than helium. But where these gases differ is in their reactive properties. Hydrogen is far more reactive than helium and, therefore, a highly flammable gas.
Until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, hydrogen was always used to fill airships and blimps. While experts are still unsure what caused the disaster, it is widely agreed that hydrogen gas caused the initial fireball.
This disaster changed how hydrogen was used. The last thing people wanted to use in their children’s party balloons was hydrogen. However, hydrogen continued to be used for many purposes and there are some key reasons why.
Firstly, hydrogen tends to be less expensive than helium. Also, hydrogen is generally easier to come across than helium, especially in certain regions of the world.
And, in recent years, there has been a shortage in the supply of helium so companies have resorted to using hydrogen once again.
While saving money is usually a good reason to use something, it isn’t exactly true of hydrogen. Due to the higher risks and dangers of hydrogen, these reasons shouldn’t justify its use but, unfortunately, they do.
That is why we continue to see hydrogen being used to fill balloons as seen in “that” video. This can be extremely dangerous, especially when people do not know what is inside their balloons. It’s just waiting for another explosion or disaster.
Hydrogen isn’t the only dangerous gas used to fill balloons. Some get filled with acetylene gas. This is typically used as a fuel for welding purposes due to its high flammability. Therefore, when stuffed inside a latex balloon, there is a high risk of an explosion occurring.
Helium: Explosive or not?
Because helium is not very reactive, it is not considered an explosive gas. If a substance is explosive, it needs to be reactive and carry a large amount of energy that hasn’t been released.
It has to be able to react very quickly so a sudden expansion is caused producing high pressure and, on occasions, a spark, and heat.
If a substance has these properties, it is generally deemed to be flammable. Because helium is non-flammable, it is not considered an explosive risk.
However, there are exceptions. Helium tanks that are stored in high-pressure environments could explode if they become ruptured. But this could happen because of the pressure and not because of helium’s reactivity. If it is with any other form of compressed gas, it will be safe.
There is a large difference between helium, hydrogen, and acetylene for that matter. Many people get confused between these gases and mistake helium for a flammable gas when an explosion occurs.
The truth of the matter is that hydrogen is usually the culprit, especially with balloons and airships.
But as helium supplies continue to dwindle, we will probably see other gases getting used more. Nevertheless, we recommend sticking to helium if possible due to its non-flammable properties.