Terra Sigillata

So, PharmK’er and I were at the originator of the chicken sandwich and she wanted a balloon. She then asked why said balloon was floating. Dad was safe in explaining how helium is lighter than the nitrogen-oxygen-carbon dioxide mixture we breathe.

Then came the killer:

“Daddy, where does the helium come from to fill the balloons?”

“A compressed gas cylinder” was not the answer she was looking for.

Thankfully, PharmMom, MD, consulted “the great big book of everything.”

Commercial helium is fractionated from natural gas, where it comprises about 7-8% of its volume, particularly in deposits within 400 km of Amarillo, Texas. The decay of uranium and thorium into alpha particles provides the higher concentration of helium observed in natural gas deposits in Texas.


I can’t imagine what awaits us during the teenage years.


  1. #1 Tony P.
    October 17, 2007

    Sort of the same situation as hydrogen. Most of it is burned off at oil refineries as it is a waste product of the oil cracking process.

    Oh they’re capturing it now.

  2. #2 Mark P
    October 17, 2007

    I have driven I-40 through Amarillo many times. I like to think of the source as the Texas helium mines.

  3. #3 Chris Noble
    October 18, 2007

    I’m expecting a 100L dewar of liquid helium on Monday.

    I’m in Australia and the helium came from Texas.

  4. #4 guthrie
    October 18, 2007

    *I know, I KNOw*

    Oh, you’ve answered the question already. Spoilsport.
    I read about it in a New Scientist article a few years ago. IT seemed then that it was definitely running out, so we’ll see if we get a helium shortage anytime soon.

  5. #5 Casey
    October 18, 2007

    And there’s actually a shortage going on right now due largely to a number of production problems recently. NPR did a good story on it recently.

  6. #6 gretchen
    October 18, 2007

    Yes and thanks to that helium shortage I’ve had Mossbauer/EPR experiments queuing up on me. argh. Stop filling balloons for your kids so I can get some data! (Kidding. Balloons are at least more likely to do something than my experiments…)

  7. #7 Dave S.
    October 18, 2007

    Helium trivia: Helium was discovered on the Sun before it was discovered on Earth.

  8. #8 Biggs
    October 18, 2007

    I lived in Amarillo till I was 18, and I was always aware that we were big producers of helium, what with the 50 foot tall helium molecule/time capsule we had laying around, but I wasn’t aware it actually came out of natural gas. Interesting to know.

  9. #9 Dr William Dyer
    October 18, 2007

    Also one could point out Helium is in effect a non-renewable resource. The average velocity of Helium gas molecule is greater then the escape velocity for the Earth. Hydrogen and diatomic Hydrogen also have sufficient energy, but are likely to chemically interact along the way and by default stay on Earth. Helium as an inert gas will eventually make its way out of the Earth’s atmosphere, since Helium will not combine with something on the way upwards.

  10. #10 Josh Rosenau
    October 23, 2007

    There’s even a helium pipeline.

  11. #11 Abel Pharmboy
    October 23, 2007

    Hey Josh, thanks so much for the reminder of your nice post from last December. I updated my most recent entry to reflect your discussion of the Bushton, KS/Amarillo helium pipeline – fascinating stuff.

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