August 2018

Sealing Helium: Best Gasket Materials to Use

Helium is used for cooling in electronics manufacturing. It’s used extensively for leak testing and it can be the inert gas in MIG and TIG welding. That means a lot of equipment needs gaskets to keep helium contained. Here’s some advice on what to use.

Helium Properties

Only hydrogen has a lower atomic number than helium. That means, even compared to other atoms, helium atoms are small and light. Unlike hydrogen though, helium, (symbol: He) is very unreactive. It won’t burn or oxidize and doesn’t form compounds, all of which make it safe and easy to handle.

This “friendly” nature and small atomic size make helium the preferred gas in leak testing. If a pressure or vacuum chamber has even the smallest crack or pore helium will find a way through. In fact, helium is so good at finding holes in materials that it’s quite difficult to contain: at the atomic scale many materials have pores that helium can pass through.

Low Permeability Materials Needed

A material that lets helium pass is considered permeable. (The same material may be impermeable to larger atoms.) Permeability is measured in terms of the volume of gas that can pass through a given area in a set time.

Most polymers have a helium permeability coefficient. This indicates how well the material blocks the passage of helium. These values are useful when choosing appropriate gasket material.

Gasket Materials for Helium

Helium is so unreactive it can be used with any gasket made from an elastomeric polymer. The issue to watch for is permeation. (A gasket that lets the gas escape isn’t working very well!)

The polymer with the lowest helium permeation coefficient is nitrile rubber, (a.k.a. NBR or Buna N.) EPDM has only slightly higher permeation, closely followed by FKM/Viton. The material to avoid is silicone as helium can pass through it quite quickly.

When selecting a gasket for helium it’s also important to consider temperature and pressure along with compression set resistance. In most room temperature applications nitrile rubber/NBR/Buna N works well, but if in doubt, consult a material expert at Hennig Gasket.

There’s a Standard for That!

One of the biggest applications for gaskets is sealing joints between pipes and devices like pumps and valves. Welding isn’t an option as it may be necessary to take the unit out of service at some point. Instead, each side of the joint has a flange and they’re bolted together with a gasket in between.

Whenever a flanged joint is opened up it’s important to install a new gasket. Obviously, this has to be the right size and to minimize downtime you need the gasket at hand before taking the joint apart. So how do you determine what size is needed? Well, the answer is, use the ASME standards.

Know the Flange Standards

Two main standards define pipe flanges: ASME B16.5 and B16.47. B16.5 covers flanges used on pipes from 1/2” NPS to 24” NPS. B16.47 addresses pipes from 26” to 60” NPS.

NPS (Nominal Pipe Size) refers to bore diameter. That makes it difficult to determine what size you’re dealing with. If you put calipers on the OD you also need to know the wall thickness. Alternatively, measure the outside diameter of the flange and refer to the appropriate standard.

Two other standards used to define pipes and flanges are MSS SP-44 and API 605. Fortunately, both are also part of ASME B16.47. Flanges complying with MSS SP-44 are defined as Series A while those meeting API 605 are Series B. The Series A flanges are intended for higher clamping loads, so are thicker and have a larger bolt circle diameter.

Standards for Flange Gaskets

Sensibly, ASME has two gasket standards that are closely related to those for flanges. These are B16.21: Nonmetallic Flat Gaskets for Pipe Flanges, and B16.20: Metallic Gaskets for Pipe Flanges.

Ask The Experts

If you don’t have a copy of B16.5, B16.47, B16.20 or B16.21 to hand, don’t guess at what gasket you need. You can look it up online, but it’s easier to call us with the details. One of our gasket material specialists will discuss your application with you and help figure out what size and material you need.