Our own Dr. Kevin Wepasnick guided a Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) investigation of the properties of a helium-pressurized beer in an article entitled Helium Beer, From Prank to Tank in its 2 November 2015 issue written by Craig Bettenhausen. C&EN is a publication of the American Chemical Society. Kevin brewed a 5-gallon batch of a cream stout beer for C&EN over a two-week fermentation period at Anderson Materials Evaluation, Inc. with writers from C&EN visiting our laboratory at the start and the end of the process. He used a kegging process, but instead of pressurizing the keg with carbon dioxide, he pressurized it with helium. The experiment was set up to test the claims that drinking a helium-pressurized beer would cause the drinker to speak with a high-pitched voice, as demonstrated in some on-line videos.
Scientifically, issues are to be expected. Foremost is the difference between a polar molecule with excellent solvent properties such as carbon dioxide and the inert gas helium. Carbon dioxide has a solubility in water of 1.7 g/kg, while helium has a solubility of merely 0.0015 g/kg in water! It would be a challenge to dissolve enough helium in a beer to turn a drinker's voice squeaky! Kevin pressurized the keg at 50 psi in a chilled keg, which is a much higher pressure than is used with carbon dioxide, and he held it at this pressure for five days.
The resulting beer had an excellent head of very fine bubbles, which it maintained as the visiting three writers from C&EN and the scientists of Anderson Materials Evaluation, Lorrie, Kevin, and Charles, sampled the beer at our laboratory. Because the beer had little carbonic acid in it, it was a mellow beer. The alcohol by volume was measured to be 6.2%, so it had a kick. Yet, the beer was definitely flat and no one developed a high-pitched voice. The Internet videos claiming such a result are fabricated! Can you imagine that?
Well, yes, thinking as a scientist, the more than a thousand times lower solubility of inert helium compared to the highly polar carbon dioxide molecule, told us those videos were faked prior to doing the experiment. Nonetheless, the experiment was fun for all.
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