While most people simply believe helium sole use is for balloons and blimps, its importance in science far exceeds its use as a lifting medium.

Helium has the lowest boiling point of any other element and will not solidify under normal conditions even at temperatures approaching absolute zero. These properties make helium useful as a coolant for superconducting magnets like those used in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines and super-colliders such as CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which use enormous amounts of helium. Its low temperatures also make it the only gas that can pressurize and purge the liquid rocket engines of the space shuttle and various other rockets. Its use in MRI machines, however, represents the largest single use for helium.

As a noble gas, it is completely inert and will not react with any other element. This property makes it useful as a shielding agent in arc welding (to prevent contamination with the oxygen in air). In addition, it can replace nitrogen in deep water diving to prohibit the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood stream thereby preventing “the bends.”

Low-temperature physics studies make helium the most important element in studying super-cold conditions. Its increasing scarcity will ultimately hamper this research, and its other uses, it the near future.

Estimated end uses of helium in the United States for 2007 (values are in million cubic feet "MMcf"):

Cryogenics........................................................727 MMcf (28%)

Pressure/Purge..................................................674 MMcf (26%)

Welding............................................................519 MMcf (20%)

Controlled Atmosphere.......................................339 MMcf (13%)

Chromatography / Lifting Gas / Heat Transfer........180 MMcf (7%)

Leak Detection...................................................102 MMcf (4%)

Breathing Mixtures...............................................53 MMcf (2%)

Source: Selling the Nation's Helium Reserve (2010), p.59 (free publication with registration)