Applications

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.

Gaskets for Vacuum Chambers

Vacuum chambers are used in many industries. Their largest application area in the physical vapor and directed vapor deposition, (PVD and DVD,) process industries. Here they are used for applying both decorative finishes and hard protective coatings. Vacuum eliminates contaminants that would cause oxidation or reduce purity. The cutting tool, semiconductor and nuclear industries are all big users. They’re also used in scientific research even for growing engineered diamonds.

A Difficult Sealing Environment

The gaskets used for sealing these chambers are critical pieces of the equipment. They fit around access ports where they have to withstand high clamping forces as well as extremely low vacuum. That means they need strength and good compression set resistance. Another requirement is a wide temperature range and there’s also a fourth, more specialized challenge.

Outgassing

Emptying a vacuum chamber of air, (pumping it down,) takes time because molecules cling to the interior surfaces. These surfaces must be given time to give up these molecules in a process called “outgassing”.

Materials give up their attached air molecules at different rates, which makes outgassing behavior an important consideration when selecting gasket material for vacuum chambers. Slower outgassing means longer pump-down times, which in turn reduces chamber throughput.

Suitable Materials for Vacuum Chamber Gaskets

The most popular choice is Viton®. Technically a polymer from the fluorocarbon family, (Viton® is the DuPont trade name,) this has a wide temperature range, (-20 to +400°F) and good compression set resistance. Most importantly though, it provides shorter outgassing times than the alternatives.

These alternative materials are silicon, Butyl, Buna-N and EPDM. Silicon gasket material outgasses more slowly than Viton® but has a wider temperature range and good ozone resistance. In ultra-low vacuum applications, meaning pressures below 7.5×10-10 Torr, elastomeric gaskets are replaced by copper.

Finding the Right Material for Vacuum

Every vacuum chamber has access ports, and access ports need gaskets. An important consideration for the gasket material is outgassing behavior as this affects pump-down time. If outgassing is a concern in your gasket application, the specialists at Hennig Gasket will be happy to offer advice.