The end of the balloons? – The Amarillo Helium Plant

How many of you know that the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holds land in within the Texas Panhandle of the upper part of the Llano Estacado? 

Amarillo has been known as the helium capital of the world since before WW II and is still currently home to the Federal Helium Reserve that is an underground storage facility operated by the BLM.  This underground reserve was discovered in 1921 at what is known as the Cliffside gas field north of Amarillo.

 The U.S. became interested in this inert gas in 1917 to provide helium for blimps used during World War I making the U.S. the first nation to produce helium.  As part of the efforts to control helium, Congress passed the Helium Conservation Act of 1925 transferring authority for the helium program from the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Bureau of Mines ensuring that helium would be constantly available for our defenses because it was considered as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen. 

To help extract and purify helium from natural gas, the Amarillo Federal Helium Plant was built just west of Amarillo from 1928 to 1929.  The plant went into operation in 1929 with workers separating helium from natural gas to make a 98% pure helium gas.  This historical plant served as the headquarters for our government’s helium program by processing, producing and shipping helium. The plant also housed the national cryogenic research laboratory which was transferred from Washington D.C.

Amarillo’s plant was the only government-owned installation that did not have to contract with private companies to process supplies of helium. From 1929 to 1960 our government was the only domestic producer of helium. 

At this historic site ten buildings were built to handle the Federal Helium Reserve: administration, laboratory, garage, powerhouse, separation, instrument, carpenter, machine/welding shop, carbon dioxide removal, and storage warehouse.  Later built were a loading dock, storage shed, a Navy building, three holding tanks (no longer present), and a high-pressure storage facility. The Bureau constructed roadways on the plant grounds, as well as a water-cooling pond, water wells, a water tower, three gas-holders  including water, steam, gas, electric, and sewage lines.

Helium played significant roles in World War II.   The gas was used in dirigibles that help protect naval missions from submarines.  Los Alamos used it in atomic bombs. Welders depended on helium to weld magnesium, aluminum, stainless steel and titanium used in rocket construction. Meteorologists, whose forecasts often determined when a mission would go forward, depended on helium-filled balloons to predict weather patterns.  Additionally, helium proved to be a lifesaver of many men during the war in administering anesthetics and helping soldiers breathe who suffered from respiratory disease.

Production ceased at this plant in 1970, but research and development continued there into the 1990s. 

The Helium Privatization Act of 1996 effectively mandated private industry to meet all future demands for helium.  With this act, the U.S. Bureau of Mines Helium Activities permanently ceased operations.   

 

Helium’s Background

Helium was first observed in August 1868 by French astronomer, Jules Janssen as a bright yellow line in the spectrum of the chromosphere of the sun.  It was not discovered on earth until March 1895. 

Helium is a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas.  Characteristically, it is described as inert, low density, high heat and electrical conductivity, a low refractive (bending of light) index, slow ionization (amount of energy required to remove an electron from that atom or molecule in the gas phase), and quick diffusion.

Helium is rare on earth, but it is the second most abundant universe element.   It is nonrenewable, lighter than air and is found in natural gas fields.   It is extracted out of the ground as a minor component in sources of natural gas.   Helium is not formed like other atoms – each helium atom was individually formed after the formation of the earth during the natural radioactive decay of other elements like uranium and thorium.   For example when uranium decays an alpha-particle is emitted which is actually the heart of a helium atom. Once it has grabbed a couple of electrons, a helium atom is born.

Due to uranium’s slow decay process meaning the time it takes uranium to halve – this so called half-life means that helium has been continuously generated since the earth was formed.   When the decay conditions are right helium is trapped underground.

 

The End of the Balloons?

Unfortunately, the Cliffside reserve will only last about another three years.  This plant is set to shut down by January 2015, as mandated by the 1996 law.  The law aimed to privatize helium allowing the halt of the federal helium program and to sell the helium reserve at Cliffside.  Other reasons are that producing high-quality helium is more difficult from the reserves that remain.  Naturally, like most gases, helium does deplete over time.

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The future of this helium reserve field depends on the federal government.

 

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