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   GUS (Gave Up Smoking) is a community support diary for Kossacks in the midst of quitting smoking. Any supportive comments, suggestions or positive distractions are appreciated. If you are quitting or thinking of quitting, or have successfully quit, please -- join us!

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Good morning GUS folks and welcome to my first attempt at a GUS diary. I have found that in the process of quitting smoking I really long for the day when I no longer even think about cigarettes. When I first started coming to these diaries I was happy to read others stories about quitting smoking and share my own. However now, after all the struggling to get past the depression associated with quitting nicotine, I find myself not too inclined to even talk about cigs. I still love visiting these diaries however and love the random subjects people write about. This has led me to decide that when I have the time to contribute I'll write about what I know and do for a living, chemistry.

I got the idea for this diary topic yesterday while performing magnetism experiments using a very sensitive instrument called a SQUID (I'll spare you what the acronym means) which requires liquid helium for operation. Helium (especially in its ultra cold liquid form) is so incredibly important to modern science and medicine but doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. I will give a quick rundown of what it is, where it comes from, and what we use it for.

So we're all familiar with the periodic table.
Helium (He) is the 2nd element on the table and belongs to the family, or "period" of elements known as noble gasses. He is #2 because it's nucleus contains two protons.  Virtually all of the He on earth is in the form of the isotope that in addition to two protons contains two neutrons, ie 4He. He is very very stable, that is un-reactive. This is because it's ground-state electron orbital is completely filled with two electrons of equal and opposite "spin". Chemical reactivity is usually driven by an atoms' desire to gain or lose an electron. He is perfectly happy as it is and does not want to gain or lose electrons when it has a completely filled outer orbital. He is the second most abundant element in the universe behind hydrogen. It is formed primarily from  title=from the fusion of hydrogen atoms in stars.

Unfortunately we can't just run a pipeline out to the sun to collect He. Also, our atmosphere contains very little He and it's so light it just goes up into the stratosphere. So where does all our He come from you ask? It comes from underground reservoirs where there are concentrations of natural gas and radioactive elements. In these settings He is produced when radioactive elements which are just too darn big for there own good shed some mass by kicking off He nuclei in a process called alpha decay.

At these reservoirs, liquid He is extracted from natural gas by a process called fractional distillation.  

There are only a hand full of underground reserves like this world wide. There are large ones in Texas, Russia, Poland, and Qatar. These sites are the planets' only large scale sources of  He.

So why is He so important besides of course holding up the Goodyear blimp and the balloons at your kid's birthday party? Essentially He is indispensable in modern science because of its incredibly low boiling point which is a mere 4.2 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. It turns out many materials behave very differently at these low temperatures. The first person to liquify He was Heike Ohnes   in 1908. He discovered that when he cooled mercury to just a couple degrees above absolute zero that its electrical resistance completely disappeared and thus super-conductivity was discovered. Today we use superconducting magnets in many important diagnostic instruments such as MRI's, NMR's (works like an MRI but is used for chemical compounds) and in high speed maglev trains. Large amounts are also needed to cool giant magnets at particle accelerators like the troubled new LHC at CERN in switzerand. While superconducting materials have become much more advanced, commercially available materials still require being cooled to temperatures only accessible with liquid He.

Another interesting new role He has found in science is in the radiometric dating technique called, not surprisingly, Helium Dating. This is a geleogical technique that measures isotopic He amounts in rock layers to determine ages.

Well I could probably go on a little bit more about the wonders of Helium but my 18 mo old daughter just woke up and needs some attention. Here's to another great smoke-free day!

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I have to apologize folks. My picture links aren't working and I can't figure them out as I'm a novice. I'll work on it but in the mean time I wanted to get this posted so Gusacks can chat in the comments.

Originally posted to last starfighter on Sat Nov 14, 2009 at 05:02 AM PST.

Also republished by gussians.


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