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Colourless and odourless helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. Due to its lightness, very little helium has remained in the Earth's atmosphere. Much of the existing helium in the Earth's atmosphere comes from the radioactive decay of other elements.
Because helium does not burn readily like hydrogen, it is a popular gas for lighter-than-air balloons. Interestingly, we can recognize the presence of helium due to its unusual effects on the vocal chords. In a helium-rich atmosphere, a person temporarily experiences a high-pitched, squeaky voice. Furthermore, this gas diffuses easily through the lungs, and therefore, it is commonly mixed with oxygen to create an artificial air supply for deep-sea divers.
Helium also has important cryogenic applications. In its liquid state, helium is used in studies close to absolute zero or to achieve extremely low temperatures for research instruments. Due to its low boiling point, helium is also suitable for low temperature gas thermometers. Helium gas thermometers are one of the standard instruments of the International Temperature Scale (1990). The National Research Council Canada's (NRC) Institute for National Measurement Standards maintains Canada's physical measurement standards. NRC also uses the visible red wavelength of a helium-neon gas laser as part of a wavelength stable source of light. The wavelength of this light is currently used as a practical, accurate standard of length throughout the world.
Researchers at NRC's Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences are looking into the possibility of using hyper-polarized helium and xenon to increase the sensitivity of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and imaging.