Helium


Cliffside Gas Field and Crude Helium Enrichment Field

What is Helium?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen. It is a colorless and odorless inert gas that has unique properties.

What makes helium unique?
Helium has many special characteristics that make it an important resource.  Of all the elements, helium is the most stable; it will not burn or react with other elements.  Helium has the lowest melting and boiling points.  It exists as a gas except under extreme conditions.  At temperatures close to absolute zero, helium is a fluid; most materials are solid when cooled to such low temperatures. 

Where does it come from?
Helium is a non-renewable natural resource that is most commonly recovered from natural gas deposits. Geologic conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas make the natural gas in these areas some of the most helium-rich in the United States. International sources of natural gas tend to have lower helium concentrations.

Why is helium a strategic natural resource?
First, a strategic resource is: a resource that is needed to supply the military, industrial uses, and essential civilian needs.  Helium is a critical component in many fields of scientific research, is needed in a number of important high-technology manufacturing processes, in indispensable to the US space exploration program, and plays an important role in defense activities on the battle field.  For many of these uses there is no substitute for helium, so when shortages occur, operations must cease.  Helium is also a non-renewable resource, it is only found in a few locations and many of the deposits in the US are being depleted.  Accordingly, the US has an important interest in ensuring that critical users have an uninterrupted supply of helium.  This was the original reason for creating the Helium Reserve.
 
What is the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) role in the Federal Helium Program?
Amarillo, Texas is home to America’s Federal Helium Program (Program).  The BLM Amarillo Field Office staff operates and maintains the only government helium storage reservoir, plant, and pipeline system in the country.

Why should anyone care about the Federal Helium Program?
The Federal Helium Program provides about 42% of the nation’s helium.  Without this source of helium, a national and global shortage of helium is inevitable with significantly higher prices expected for the limited supply.  In addition, the U.S. Treasury averages $430,000/day from crude helium sales, royalties and other related operations.

What is Helium used for?
Helium is an essential resource for the aerospace industry, computer chip and optical fiber manufacturing, for medical uses including MRI magnet cooling, lung tissue visualization, heart catheterization methods, and medical lasers, aluminum helium arc welding, and scuba diving mixtures. Helium is also used in national defense applications such as rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, and blimps. Surveillance devices, air to air missile guidance, and systems testing are just some of the military uses for helium. The most recognized uses for helium gas are party and parade balloons.  However, these make up a very small percentage of the overall demand for helium.

For more detailed descriptions:

  • The medical field uses helium in essential diagnostic equipment such as MRI’s. The first laser invented, a helium-neon laser, is today used in laser eye surgery.
  • Helium is used to cool some thermographic cameras and equipment. This type of equipment detects heat instead of visible light helping search and rescue teams can locate people in rubble or through smoke, allowing electricians to find overheated electrical equipment in need of repair, and medical professionals monitor certain physiological processes.  
  • Various industries use helium to detect gas leaks in their products.  Helium is a safe tracer gas because it is inert.  Manufacturers of aerosol products, tires, refrigerators, fire extinguishers, air conditioners and other devices use helium to test the seals of their products before they come to market.
  • Cutting edge space science and research requires helium.  NASA uses helium to keep hot gases and ultra-cold liquid fuel separated during lift off of research/experimental rockets and formerly, the space shuttle.
  • Helium is part of the guidance correction systems for air-to-air missiles used by our military.
  • Arc welding uses helium to create an inert gas shield. Similarly, divers and others working under pressure can use a mix of helium and oxygen to create a safe artificial breathing atmosphere.
  • Helium is a protective gas in titanium and zirconium production and in growing silicon and germanium crystals.
  • Since helium doesn’t become radioactive, it is used as a cooling medium for nuclear reactors.
    Cryogenics, superconductivity, laser pointers, supersonic wind tunnels, cardiopulmonary resuscitation pumps, Aerostat monitoring blimps used by the Border Patrol, and liquid fuel rockets all require helium in either their manufacture or use.
  • And, of course, filling party and parade balloons with a safe, non-flammable gas.

Click here to see a list of Government Users and Other Users of Helium.

How is the Federal Helium Program authorized?
On October 2, 2013, President Obama signed into law the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, replacing the Helium Privatization Act of 1996. 
 
How is the Federal Helium Program Funded?
The Federal Helium Program is funded with money from helium sales, storage fees and related revenues that are credited to the helium production fund used to manage the program. 
 
Has Helium been priced for Fiscal Year 2014?
A new price for the second quarter crude helium sale will be posted by the end of November 2013. This new price will use the open market methodology recommended to the BLM by the Office of Mineral Evaluation.

Media inquiries about helium should be directed to Paul McGuire at 405-794-9624, pmcguire@blm.gov

Click here for Technical and Industry-Related Frequently Asked Questions


Energy Links

More Information on the BLM's Helium Program

Federal Helium Program

Helium Operator Information

Helium Articles from CryoGas International

Helium Facts

NAS Study 2010 Selling the Nation's Helium Reserve

NAS Helium Study 2000 (The Impact of Selling the Federal Helium Reserve)

Federal Helium Facilities

Helium Statistics and Information (USGS)

Helium Resources of the U.S.
2001 | 2003 | 2007

Analyses of Natural Gases
1998-2001 | 2002-2004 | 2005-2007

Historical Architectural Engineering Report (HAER) Drawings for the Amarillo and Exell Helium Plants

Amarillo Field Office


Helium Trivia

1. Helium was the cause of the Hindenburg explosion. (True or False) 

2. In 1915, helium cost $2500 per cubic foot. How much did it cost in 1940 (per cubic foot)?

  • 1.5 cents
  • $100
  • $3000
  • $20

3. Inhaled helium causes your vocal cords to constrict, giving you a voice much higher in pitch. (True or False)

4. In order of abundance in the universe, where is helium ranked among elements?

  • 1st
  • 2nd
  • 4th
  • 30th

5. What does helium mean?

  • male
  • floating
  • sun
  • weird

Answers to Helium Trivia