Chemistry - Why do we use helium in balloons?

Solution 1:

As other answers have noted, the only gas lighter than helium is hydrogen, which has some flammability issues that make it more difficult to handle safely than helium.

Also, in practice, hydrogen is not significantly "lighter" than helium. While the molecular mass (and thus, per the ideal gas law, the density) of hydrogen gas is about half that of helium, what determines the buoyancy of a balloon is the difference between the density of the gas inside the balloon and the air outside.

The density of air at STP is about $\rho_{\ce{air}}=\pu{1.2754 kg m-3}$ , while the densities of hydrogen and helium gas are $\rho_{\ce{H2}}=\pu{0.08988 kg m-3}$ and $\rho_{\ce{He}}=\pu{0.1786 kg m-3}$ respectively. The buoyant forces of a hydrogen balloon and a helium balloon in air (neglecting the weight of the skin and the pressure difference between the inside and the outside, which both decrease the buoyancy somewhat) are proportional to the density differences $\rho_{\ce{air}} -\rho_{\ce{H2}}=\pu{1.1855 kg m-3}$ and $\rho_{\ce{air}} -\rho_{\ce{He}}=\pu{1.0968 kg m-3}$. Thus, helium is only about $7.5\%$ less buoyant in air than hydrogen.

Of course, if the surrounding air were replaced with a lighter gas, the density difference between hydrogen and helium would become more significant. For example, if you wished to go ballooning on Jupiter, which has an atmosphere consisting mostly of hydrogen and some helium, a helium balloon would simply sink, and even a pure hydrogen balloon (at ambient temperature) would not lift much weight. Of course, you could always just fill the balloon with ambient Jovian air and heat it up to produce a hot hydrogen balloon (not to be confused with a Rozière balloon, which are used on Earth and have separate chambers for hot air and hydrogen / helium).

Ps. A quick way to approximately obtain this result is to note that a hydrogen molecule consists of two protons (and some electrons, which have negligible mass), and thus has a molecular mass of about $\pu{2 Da}$, while a helium atom has two protons and two neutrons, for a total mass of about $\pu{4 Da}$.

Air, meanwhile, is mostly oxygen and nitrogen: oxygen has a molecular mass of about $\pu{32 Da}$ (8 protons + 8 neutrons per atom, two atoms per molecule), while nitrogen is close to $\pu{28 Da}$ (one proton and one neutron per atom less than oxygen). Thus, the average molecular mass of air should be between $28$ and $\pu{32 Da}$; in fact, since air is about three quarters nitrogen, it's about $\pu{29 Da}$, and so the buoyancies of hydrogen and helium in air are proportional to $29 - 2 = 27$ and $29 - 4 = 25$ respectively. Thus, hydrogen should be about $\frac{(27 - 25)}{25} = \frac{2}{25} = \frac{8}{100} = 8\%$ more buoyant than helium, or, in other words, helium should be about $\frac{2}{27} \approx 7.5\%$ less buoyant than hydrogen.

Pps. To summarize some of the comments below, there are other possible lifting gases as well, but none of them appear to be particularly viable competitors for helium, at least not at today's helium prices.

For example, methane (molecular mass $\approx \pu{16 Da}$) has about half the buoyancy of hydrogen or helium in the Earth's atmosphere, and is cheap and easily available from natural gas. However, like hydrogen, it's also flammable, and while it's somewhat less dangerous by some measures (burn speed and flammability range), it's more dangerous by others (total energy content per volume). In any case, the reduced buoyancy, together with the flammability, is probably enough to sink (pun not intended) methane as a viable alternative to helium.

A much less flammable choice would be water vapor which, with a molecular mass of $\approx \pu{18 Da}$, is only slightly less buoyant than methane at the same temperature and pressure. The obvious problem with water is that it's a liquid at ambient temperatures, which means it has to be heated to make it lift anything at all. This wouldn't be so bad (after all, you get extra lift from the expansion due to heat), except for the fact that it makes any failure in the heating system a potential disaster — whereas a hot air balloon will just gently drift down if the burner fails, a hot steam balloon can experience catastrophic buoyancy loss if the vapor condenses.

Despite these drawbacks, hot steam balloons have certainly been suggested, studied and tried in the past — alas, not always particularly successfully (although, apparently, there have been much more successful attempts as well). There are various ways in which the condensation issue could potentially be reduced, such as adding extra insulation layers to the balloon envelope, or even surrounding the steam balloon with a more conventional hot air envelope. So far, however, it seems that steam balloons remain firmly in the realm of nifty but impractical ideas.

Other potential lifting gases, with molecular mass similar to methane and water, include ammonia and neon. Neon, being a noble gas like helium, would certainly work and be safe, but alas, it's both less buoyant and more expensive than helium.

Ammonia, on the other hand, while much less flammable than methane, is rather toxic and corrosive (not to mention really stinky, which, given its other properties, is probably a good thing). I don't think I'd like to fly in an ammonia balloon, but apparently, some people do! It seems that its main advantage (besides being much cheaper than helium) is its relatively low vapor pressure, which makes it easier to store and handle in compressed form.

Thus, at least for some niche applications (mainly hobbyists and some weather balloons, AFAICT), ammonia might actually be the most viable alternative to helium (and hot air) today, with methane / natural gas perhaps coming second. If helium were to become more scarce and expensive, these low-cost lifting gases (and possibly other alternatives, like helium recovery or even steam balloons) might become more practical. Then again, so would hydrogen — its safety issues, though well known, are not insurmountable, especially not for things like unmanned weather balloons where the risks are much less.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Solution 2:

Actually, hydrogen is the only gas that is lighter than helium. However, it has a very big disadvantage: It is highly flammable. On the other hand, helium is almost completely inert - this is why it is very much safer to use the latter.

What might happen when you use hydrogen instead of helium was impressively proven by history when the "Hindenburg" zeppelin exploded on 6 May 1937. There is video footage, that can be seen on youtube.

In some of the comments it was mentioned, that hydrogen alone might not be the cause of the Hindenburg disaster, there were other contributing factors. However, using hydrogen remains dangerous, as this weather balloon experiment shows. In a more scientific setup the burning of a hydrogen balloon is compared to oxygen and a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen. Unfortunately a video of a helium filled balloon is not available, but it basically only ruptures and pops because of the different pressures on the in- and outside.

Solution 3:

Yes, hydrogen is lighter than helium but helium, on the other hand, is an inert gas (very less reactive). Also, hydrogen is highly flammable so that would make it unsafe to play with balloons.

Solution 4:

One counter-argument: Helium is essentially a "fossil gas", and there's a limited supply of easy-to-get helium (until we get practical fusion reactors running, at least). Hydrogen, on the other hand, is universally available in $\ce{H2O}$ and needs only a bit of electricity to break it out. Since helium has important industrial uses other than balloons, I expect that we will eventually find it becomes too expensive to throw away on toys.

Solution 5:

With hydrogen, you are just one touch away from disaster. A hydrogen balloon goes anywhere near the birthday candles and you end up. Helium on the other hand is so inert that you can inhale it and all it would do is to make you sound like a chipmunk for a minute or so.