Little 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.