Helium Production in the United States

Although helium was now potentially available in large quantities, it remained a laboratory curiosity for almost 10 years, and the entire American supply rested in three glass tubes, dusty and almost forgotten on the shelf in Bailey Hall at The University of Kansas. When Clifford W. Siebel came to Kansas to work on an advanced degree, Cady suggested that he should re-examine the helium content in natural gas for his thesis research. Siebel approached the problem reluctantly and without enthusiasm. When he read his results before a scientific audience in Kansas City in 1917, he concluded by expressing regret "that the work did not have a practical application." A representative from the U.S. Bureau of Mines "took immediate issue with that remark, and ... read a part of a letter from [Sir] William Ramsay in England in which the suggestion was made that the United States produce enough helium to inflate lighter-than-air craft for the Allies." The nonflammable and unreactive helium was desirable because it had almost the same lifting power as gaseous hydrogen, which is dangerous to handle because it is flammable.

Siebel was selling meager quantities of helium for $2500 per cubic foot. He quickly calculated that at that rate, the cost of filling a small blimp was more than $100 million. Ten years later, after the U.S. government established plants at Forth Worth and Amarillo, Texas, the cost had dropped to three cents per cubic foot. Large-scale production of helium came too late to be of much value in World War I, but it did play a major role in World War II, when helium-filled U.S. Navy patrol blimps safely escorted thousands of ships carrying troops and supplies. The blimps used sensitive listening devices that when lowered into the water could detect submarines up to five miles away. At the time, the Allies had a virtual monopoly on helium, because the only known gas wells capable of producing helium in large quantities were in the United States and Canada.

Once helium became readily available in large quantities, other uses quickly followed. Today the U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages helium gas reserves, leasing, and storage. According to the bureau, "helium plays a prominent role in the Government's space, defense, and energy programs, such as pressurization of liquid propellants used by the space shuttle, weapons development, and nuclear fusion reactor experiments. Liquid helium uses include cooling infrared detectors, space simulations, materials testing, and biological and superconductivity research. Gaseous helium uses include various lighter-than-air activities, helium-neon lasers, detecting gas leaks, helium-oxygen mixture for deep sea diving, and high-speed welding of special metals." Helium has also been used for producing extremely high velocities in wind tunnels and in hospitals it serves as a cryogenic liquid for magnetic resonance imaging. It is still considered a strategic reserve material.


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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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