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 so unique?
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 near absolute zero, helium is a fluid; most materials are solid when cooled to such low temperatures.
Where does helium 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 world (with concentrations between 0.3% to 2.7%).
What is helium used for, and why is it a strategic natural resource?
Perhaps the most familiar use of helium is as a safe, non-flamable gas to fill party and parade balloons. However, helium is a critical component in many fields, including scientific research, medical technology, high-tech manufacturing, space exploration, and national defense. Here are a few examples:
- The medical field uses helium in essential diagnostic equipment such as MRI’s, and helium-neon lasers are used in eye surgery.
- National defense applications include rocket engine testing, scientific balloons, surveillance craft, air-to-air missile guidance systems, and more.
- Helium is used to cool thermographic cameras and equipment used by search and rescue teams and medical personnel to detect and 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 seals before their products 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 rockets.
- 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, monitoring blimps used by the Border Patrol, and liquid fuel rockets all require helium in either their manufacture or use.
For many of these applications, there is no substitute for helium. Helium is a non-renewable resource found in recoverable quantities in only a few locations around the world, many of which are being depleted. Accordingly, the US has important economic and national security interests in ensuring a reliable supply of helium.
What is the Federal role in managing this strategic resource?
The BLM operates and maintains a helium storage reservoir, enrichment plant, and pipeline system near Amarillo, Texas, that supplies over 40 percent of domestic demand for helium. The BLM supplies crude helium to private helium refining companies which in turn refine the helium and market it to consumers.
The BLM is also responsible for evaluating the nation’s helium-bearing gas fields and providing responsible access to Federal land for managed recovery and disposal of helium. The Federal Helium Program is administered by the BLM’s Amarillo Field Office under the authority of the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013.
History of the Federal Helium Program
The Federal Helium Program has undergone many changes since its inception in 1925. Following World War I, Congress created the Federal Helium Program to ensure that helium would be available to the government for defense needs. The Army valued it as a safe, noncombustible alternative to hydrogen for use in buoyant aircraft.
The Bureau of Mines constructed and operated a large helium extraction and purification plant near Amarillo, Texas, that went into operation in 1929. The facility was located close to the Hugoton and other natural gas fields that run from southwest Kansas through the panhandle of Oklahoma and into the panhandle of Texas. The natural gas in these fields contains unusually high concentrations of helium, from 0.3% to 2.7%; they constitute the largest source of helium in the United States. From 1929 to 1960 the federal government was the only domestic producer of helium.
During and after World War II the demand for helium increased. In response, Congress passed amendments to the Helium Act in 1960 that provided incentives for private natural gas producers to strip helium from natural gas and sell it to the Federal government. The Secretary of the Interior was given authority to borrow money from the U.S. Treasury to buy helium. Some of this helium was used for research, NASA’s space program, and other applications, but most was injected into the Cliffside Storage Facility, a natural geologic formation known as the Bush Dome about 12 miles northwest of Amarillo (aka the Federal Helium Reserve).
Over the next several decades, private sector demand for helium began to exceed Federal demand. In response, Congress redefined the government’s role in helium production by passing the Helium Privatization Act (HPA) of 1996. The Bureau of Land Management was given responsibility for operating the Federal Helium Reserve for the purpose of providing enriched crude helium to private refiners. The HPA directed BLM to use revenues from the sale of helium to pay off the debt originally incurred to acquire the helium.
By 2013, BLM had fully repaid the $1 billion debt, with 11 Bcf of helium still remaining unsold in the Reserve. Congress authorized continued operation of the Reserve by passing the Helium Stewardship Act. The intent of the HSA is to allow for a smooth transition to private means of helium production (both domestic and international) as the Reserve is steadily drawn down.
How is the Federal Helium Program Funded?
The Federal Helium Program operates using non-appropriated funds, i.e. money generated from the sale and storage of helium and other related non-tax revenues. After funding operations, the program yields about $430,000 per day for the U.S. Treasury.