"Helium is no longer a rare element"


McFarland and chemistry department colleague Hamilton P. Cady began removing the nitrogen from the gas sample by applying a spark discharge with oxygen over an alkaline solution. Cady and McFarland found the procedure tedious and time consuming. "While it was going on," Cady said, "we decided to take advantage of [Sir James] Dewar's recently published discovery that coconut charcoal would adsorb all gases [in the atmosphere] except helium, hydrogen, and neon very completely at the temperature of boiling liquid air" (-310 F).

After making some coconut charcoal and building a glass apparatus to handle the gases, Cady and McFarland proceeded to immerse glass bulbs of the Dexter gas in liquid air and allowed them to stand for some time. This removed the hydrocarbons by condensation. The remaining gases were then transferred to glass bulbs containing coconut charcoal immersed in liquid air. The small amount of unabsorbed gas left after this treatment was passed into a glass tube and placed in a spectroscope. On Dec. 7, 1905, Cady and McFarland found that "instantly the yellow of the helium flashed up and the spectroscope showed all the lines of helium." The dominant spectroscopic line was identical to that found almost 40 years earlier in the spectroscopic analysis of the Sun that led to the extraterrestrial discovery of helium. The total amount of helium present in the Dexter gas was an astonishing 1.84%.

Less than a month later, on January 1, 1906, E.H.S. Bailey, the chemistry department chair at Kansas, read a paper by Cady and McFarland describing their remarkable discovery before an ACS national meeting in New Orleans.

After perfecting a technique for the rapid determination of the amount of helium in natural gas and a method for separating the helium from the other gases, Cady and McFarland began to analyze a large number of gas wells in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. By the middle of 1906, they were able to report that they had "a very unusual opportunity for obtaining helium in practically unlimited quantities." When they published their complete findings in November 1907, Cady commented that their work "assures the fact that helium is no longer a rare element, but a common element, existing in goodly quantity for uses that are yet to be found for it."


 

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The gas that wouldn't burn | "Helium is no longer a rare element" | Helium production in the United States
Hamilton Perkins Cady | David Ford McFarland | Bailey Hall | Landmark designation and acknowledgments

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