Belated Friday Find: Helium shortages

i-04f432bd2058df7cc8afe707f2dc912e-200612241407.jpgLittle known fact: Kansas is (apparently) the world’s leading producer of helium, accounting for 4 billion cubic feet per year out of the world’s production of 6 billion cubic feet. Alas, production problems in Algeria and Qatar are leaving global shortages, as are problems with the helium pipeline leading from Bushton, KS to Amarillo, TX:

Industry experts aren’t sure exactly when the shortage will end. Balloon retailers, which use 8 percent of helium supply annually, are hoping normal production levels return in time for Valentine’s Day, typically one of the busiest flower and balloon sales days of the year.

Helium is extracted from natural gas wells, and the first major terrestrial supply of helium was found in Kansas in 1905. An oil well in Dexter, Kansas produced a gas plume that didn’t burn. KU chemists took samples of the plume back for analysis, and determined that it was 12% helium. In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds determined that the helium nucleus is the alpha particle.

The US Navy took an interest in the Kansas helium fields, and used them to fill barrage balloons, blimps and dirigibles during the World Wars. NASA came calling after the war, as did helium applications in welding and other industrial processes.

Kansas may seem flat from above, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.


  1. #1 Aerik
    December 24, 2006

    I’m from Kansas, and I’m a bit taken back that I didn’t know our natural gas was used to produce 2/3 of the world’s helium. I’m not exactly a slouch on Kansas history. I’ve visited an old salt mine, I’ve seen most of the historic landmarks, I’ve designed a bike trial to visit the local marks around my town, I’ve been out west more than a few times, I even knew we produced natural gas… but for helium? I don’t know why that would escape me, especially since I took the NJROTC course my freshman year of high school, and we discussed some Kansas military history, and the Navy’s interest in the Kansas helium fields would have been a damned good topic.

    Learn somethin every day.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 25, 2006

    Light conversation, indeed.

    Helium-3 is particularly valuable, as the much rarer isotope than Helium-4, once we have fusion reactos to use it! Might be cheaper to get Helium-3 from Kansas than from the upper millimeters of lunar regolith.

    Pipeline to Texas, moonbase — say, is the Bush White House involved?

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 26, 2006

    Okay, since you rejected my posting a few days ago about helium-3, despite the fact that I’m published in the field, I can ask you to email me WHY you rejected it. Else I’ll simply not bother posting again to your site, with all due respect. Which may be what you want, regardless of how readers engage in my postings on other Science Blogs.

  4. #4 Walter Jeffries
    December 26, 2006

    Fascinating. I had wondered where Helium came from for balloons… The second new thing I’ve learned today! :) Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Sugar Mtn Farm
    in Vermont

  5. #5 Josh
    December 26, 2006

    John, your post got caught by an automated spam filter. I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t a conscious choice. I think it’s a filter meant to screen out spams about poker.

    In any event, yes, helium-3 fusion reactors would be an interesting benefit of an expanded lunar mission for NASA.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 27, 2006

    Dear Joshua Rosenau,

    I apologize for blaming you for a mindless filter. It was most unprofessional for me to gripe about perceived rejection. The progress of science and art depend, in part, on editors being able to reject.

    In fact, I would not have 2,400 publications, presentations, and broadcasts to my credit were it NOT for my learning not to take rejection seriously, somewhere around my 5,000th rejection letter/rejection slip.

    Editorial rejection/acceptance is (based on my lengthy observation) a stochastic process almost uncorrelated with the quality of the submitted work. This applies to journals, magazines, conference proceedings, newspapers, and the like. Even blogs… It is useful to measure the parameters of the process with your own work’s random walk in editor-space.

    What was the most outrageous referee’s comment you ever got on a paper submision in Ecology or Evolutionary Biology?

  7. #7 Larry Fafarman
    December 28, 2006

    Josh said,

    The US Navy took an interest in the Kansas helium fields, and used them to fill barrage balloons, blimps and dirigibles during the World Wars.

    I wonder how the enormous amount of helium required was transported from the gas fields to the construction sites for the airships. Containers for transporting compressed helium are very heavy and extremely low temperatures — close to absolute zero — are required to liquefy helium. The pipelines were probably not long enough to transport the helium-rich natural gas, which you said does not burn (I don’t know why — the helium is inert). Maybe the dirigibles, blimps, etc. could be temporarily filled with hydrogen and then flown to the gas fields to be filled with helium.

    Kansas may seem flat from above, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.

    There is a lot going on above the surface, too — for example, Wichita has been called “the Detroit of the light aircraft industry.” However, the state governor, instead of emphasizing the positive things about Kansas, has wallowed in the supposedly bad reputation that the evolution controversy has given the state.

  8. #8 Josh
    December 28, 2006

    Larry, Governor Sebelius has spent very little time talking about the evolution issue, and spent a lot of time talking about the Kansas economy, which has been booming while the nation at large has been stagnating.

    As for the pipeline, look at the map reproduced above, which shows where it goes. The Navy and later the BLM stored helium in a field that had been exhausted. Once there, the helium could be used in experiments with lighter-than-air craft, or could be compressed for shipment. The pipeline has since been privatized.

  9. #9 Steve Pinkston
    December 29, 2006

    A bit off-topic, but perhaps you’ll indulge a former Kansan as I tell a story I recall from my youth.

    A man from Kansas City walks into the General Store in a small western Kansas town.

    He says to the clerk, “I’m not from around here. Are there any points of interest in the area that I should see?”

    The clerk thinks for a minute, then replies, “Well, there’s really not much to see. There IS a rather large helium plant on the other side of town.”

    The fellow from KC says, “Oh wow…is it in bloom?”

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