In the 1632 universe, helium is mentioned repeatedly as an alternative to hydrogen as a lift gas for airships. While providing slightly (7%) less lift, it has the advantages of being non-flammable and having about half the permeation rate of hydrogen (so it leaks out more slowly).
However, this is actually a minor use of helium. In 1996, the principal uses were cryogenics (24%), pressurizing and purging (20%), welding (18%), and controlled atmospheres (16%). That leaves 18%, which includes breathing mixtures, leak detection . . .
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- The Grantville Gazette Staff