Helium & Kansas

The helium plant in Dexter, Kansas, where helium was first discovered in natural gas on December 7, 1905 (Blue Skyways)

Kansas is America’s leading producer of helium, the second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), and an element discovered on the sun (in the solar spectrum during an eclipse in 1868) prior to its discovery on earth.

Beneath the surface of central Kansas runs an underground mountain of granite, the Nemaha Ridge, along a north-south axis below a layer of sedimentary rock laid down during the Pennsylvanian. Through the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium embedded in this granite, this granite produces helium, which then permeates and suffuses the natural gas deposits of the region.

Helium has grown increasingly useful for a wide variety of applications, including birthday balloons, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, chromatography, the detection of microscopic leaks, fiber optics manufacturing, and, among numerous others, cryogenic superconductors. In consequence, global demand for helium has risen at a rate of more than eight percent per year for the past quarter of a century.

What makes all of this important today? As the Australian science magazine Cosmos observes, (in an article originally gleaned from Fermilab’s Symmetry Magazine) the World’s Helium Supply [is] Running Low.

(For more information on Helium production and reserves, see this two-page document from the US Geological Survey.)

Update: A very interesting sidebar to this discussion may be found in today’s New Scientist in Helium Clue Found in Echo of Big Bang, which notes, among other things, that new measurements appear to confirm that helium constituted about a quarter of all ordinary matter created during the Big Bang.

Helium Plants & Pipelines (Bureau of Land Management)

Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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