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The Main Extraction: Helium Production in the US

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Helium, especially highly purified versions, has been increasingly in demand globally for its usefulness in high tech applications, such as in microchip and flat panel display manufacturing or as a coolant for magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, particle accelerators, and fiber optics manufacturing. Here is a brief history of helium production in the US:

1903 Helium discovered underground in Kansas as a gas that won't burn.

1914-18 The gas is used during WWI as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen in dirigibles, among other government applications.

1921 The first full-scale US helium production plant is built near Fort Worth, Texas, and operated commercially for the US Navy.

1925 Under the Helium Act, Congress creates Federal Helium Program to ensure the gas is available for defense, research and medicine.

1929 The US Bureau of Mines builds and begins operating a large helium extraction/purification plant outside Amarillo, Texas.

1929-1960 The US government is the only domestic producer of helium.

1939-45 During WWII helium is used mostly as a lifting gas, but is also crucial in developing the atom bomb.

1960 Helium Act amendments direct the Secretary of the Interior to acquire and conserve helium using funds borrowed from the US Treasury.

1940s-1990s Demand increases, incentives are offered to private natural gas producers to distill the gas and sell it to the government, which begins injecting surplus into the Federal Helium Reserve at the Bush Dome Reservoir near Amarillo.

Early 1990s Federal Helium Program targeted for privatization.

January 1995 In his State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton calls the helium reserve one of "100 programs we do not need."

Late 1995  National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council concludes depleting the reserve wouldn't have a substantial impact on the helium industry for the next 20 years. The American Physical Society Council says reserve should be increased, not depleted. Calls plan "economically and technologically short-sighted."

1996 The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is put in charge of providing crude helium to refiners, regulating helium withdrawal from the federal pipeline.

October 1996  Congress passes the Helium Privatization Act, directing the federal program to stop producing and selling refined helium by April 9, 1998, and to liquidate most of the reserve between 2005 and 2015.

Jan. 1, 2005 Sale of the reserve, billions of cubic feet of natural gas containing varying amounts of helium, begins.

2006-07  Demand for helium increases globally, raising concerns about price increases and tight supplies. About 35 percent of global demand is met through withdrawals from the federal reserve.

April 2008  Sponsored by the Department of the Interior, the National Research Council forms a committee to revisit the issue of selling off most of the reserve.

August 2008  Acting on a whistleblower's tip, the US Dept. of the Interior Inspector General's Office of Inspections and Office of Investigations finds the BLM helium program vulnerable to fraud, abuse and large losses stemming from its less-than-arms-length relationship with a contractor representing several large helium refiners on the pipeline.


Helium production in the US. Source: US Bureau of Land Management.

For more on helium's role in high tech science applications and conservation efforts, see Helium: Up, Up and Away? in the October 2008 issue of Photonics Spectra.
Oct 2008
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
Basic ScienceBLMBureau of MinesBush DomedefensedirigublesextractionFederal Helium ProgramgasgovernmentheliumhydrogenindustrialmedicinephotonicspurificationResearch & TechnologyreservesurplusWeb Exclusives

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