Physicists' findings about helium could lead to more accurate temperature measurements

May 17, 2010
Wojciech Cencek, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, was involved in research on helium that may lead to more accurate standards for how temperature and pressure are measured. Credit: Ambre Alexander/University of Delaware

In the May 7 edition of Physical Review Letters an international team led by University of Delaware researchers reports new findings about helium that may lead to more accurate standards for how temperature and pressure are measured.

In the article, highlighted as an "Editor's Suggestion" by the journal, the scientists provide a new theoretical computation of the force acting between a pair of helium , referred to as "pair potential," that is more accurate than any published to date.

Krzysztof Szalewicz, professor in the UD Department of Physics and Astronomy, led the study, which involved Wojciech Cencek, a postdoctoral researcher at UD, and colleagues from the University of Warsaw and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, and the University of Oslo in Norway.

Most of us know helium as a gas for filling party balloons or for making your voice temporarily sound like a cartoon character's. But this element named for the sun is used in lasers for eye surgery, to cooling agents in nuclear reactors.

Helium has a number of characteristics that make it special, Szalewicz says. It is the most stable of all the elements and has the lowest boiling point. It becomes a fluid at temperatures close to while most other materials are a solid. In fact, helium is a liquid even at absolute zero and becomes a solid only at high pressure.

Helium is the only substance that exhibits superfluidity, and it will not burn or react with other elements, which is one reason why it is used as a pressurizing agent for liquid fuel rockets in space exploration, among many other applications.

"Of all the elements, helium is closest to the ideal gas," Szalewicz says. "Two helium atoms form the weakest bound . All the properties of temperature, for example, which is a measure of the of particles in matter, can be modeled if the force acting between a pair of helium atoms is known.

"This has been the subject of extensive activity," Szalewicz notes, "as accurate knowledge of the pair potential of helium is of importance in several branches of science, including low-temperature condensed matter physics, spectroscopy, and metrology, which is the science of measurement."

The research team used complex numerical techniques to compute several physical effects in the helium pair potential which are rarely considered in molecular physics. These effects include couplings of the electronic and nuclear motions, contributions due to Einstein's special relativity, and the so-called quantum electrodynamics contributions due to the interaction of the electrons with the electromagnetic field.

The scientists predict that the binding energy of two molecules of helium, chemically referred to as a "dimer," is 6,790 times smaller than the potential depth, and the average separation between the atoms is 47 angstroms compared to the typical chemical bond length of about 1 angstrom. The estimated uncertainties of the theoretical results are an order of magnitude smaller than the best experimental ones, they report.

The thermophysical properties of gaseous computed from this potential now will be used to calibrate the apparatus for measuring properties such as viscosities or the speed of sound.

"These calculations should lead to new, better standards for quantities such as temperature or pressure," Szalewicz says. "Continuous improvement of metrology standards is important for progress in experimental science, as well as in many industrial applications."

Explore further: First in-situ images of void collapse in explosives

Related Stories

Probable observation of a supersolid helium phase

Apr 21, 2004

Just last year we have seen a Nobel Prize in physics awarded to Abrikosov, Ginzburg and Leggett for "pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids" And now Nature publishes an article by E. Kim ...

Recommended for you

First in-situ images of void collapse in explosives

Jul 25, 2014

While creating the first-ever images of explosives using an x-ray free electron laser in California, Los Alamos researchers and collaborators demonstrated a crucial diagnostic for studying how voids affect ...

New approach to form non-equilibrium structures

Jul 24, 2014

Although most natural and synthetic processes prefer to settle into equilibrium—a state of unchanging balance without potential or energy—it is within the realm of non-equilibrium conditions where new possibilities lie. ...

Nike krypton laser achieves spot in Guinness World Records

Jul 24, 2014

A set of experiments conducted on the Nike krypton fluoride (KrF) laser at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) nearly five years ago has, at long last, earned the coveted Guinness World Records title for achieving "Highest ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) May 17, 2010
Anybody know what would it be like if humans explored a planet with a helium atmosphere? I know we would die without oxygen, but would it sound very cartoony?
1 / 5 (2) May 17, 2010
Hopefully the return of the fundamental electrodynamic asymmetry (as Maxwell's full unedited original equations abundantly illustrate) of the system will emerge.

Then you will finally understand where the arrow of time comes from.