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From: (Don Wilkins)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: Re: Helium Production
Date: Fri, 03 Jan 1997 04:16:28 GMT

On Thu, 02 Jan 1997 10:07:47 -0500, "John D. Borneman"
<> wrote:

>Can anybody tell me how helium is "produced"?  I have found a great deal 
>of information, including the major sources (gas wells in the US), 
>production amounts, usages, etcetera, but no info on how the helium is 
>extracted from - - what I assume is - - natural gas wells.

Originally it was recovered from the atmosphere in a rather complex
liquefaction process and selective adsorption on activated charcoal at
low temperatures. 

Later it was recovered from minerals such as monazite either by
heating in a vacuum system or by dissolving the mineral and capturing
the gas.

During World War I it was discovered to be present in significant
quantities in natural gas. The gas companies are not enthused by its
presence because it doesn't burn and there isn't a large enough market
to merit recovery and sale.

It is not what one would consider a renewable resource as it is lost
once released to the atmosphere so the government stepped in and
created a program to recover helium from natural gas and store the
surplus. A lot of natural gas got to the end use by taking a detour
through the government recovery plant. The helium went underground in
salt mines for storage.

>I can guess that helium "extraction" could involve temperature and/or 
>pressure, but I thought I'd find out if anyone out there knew the real 

The original separation process (US Bur. Mines Inf. Circ 6745 (19933))
involved removal of carbon dioxide and then moisture and some of the
hydrocarbons by cooling followed by cooling to -190 under pressures of
some 2500 psi to liquefy nitrogen and give a helium gas of about 98%
purity. I am sure the procedure has been slicked up a bit since.

There has been some controversy over the program. One side pushes the
argument that when the helium runs out it is gone forever. The other
side claims it is a costly government program  which should have seen
the sunset long ago.

In the 50's helium was fairly costly and at the research facility
where I was employed we had our own liquefaction equipment.
Researchers who were using liquid helium had huge plastic balloons up
on the ceiling collecting the gas from their experiments. When the
bags were full they would walk down the hill to the liquefaction
building  towing three or four of these bags and have their helium
cleaned up and liquified. for another experiment. At the time they
were studying superconductors. Later we were using it to study the
development of superconducting magnets eventually used in MRI. The
first 100,000 gauss magnet was quite a milestone and we didn't even
visualize MRI at the time. In fact NMR was pretty much confined to

Later of course political correctness got the nuclear out and it
became MRI. You know that if you told the patient that they were going
to be exposed to Nuclear Magnetic Imaging that the glow in the dark
syndrome would have reared its ugly head. Up until the time it got
into the medical field the chemists and physicists were perfectly
happy with NMR.

Helium is used in MRI to keep the electromagnet coils (original
niobium-tin) at the temperature where they are superconductors. By
running superconducting magnets they can push a hellish amount of
current through a pretty small diameter wire. When they go
non-superconducting  all hell would break loose and you usually
trashed the magnet. Without going into detail they overcame this by
having the superconducting wire encased in copper so that all of the
turns were shorted by the copper. If the magnet went "normal" the
current was dissipated through the copper "insulation" which saved the

The surplus created by the government of course has lowered the price
so that you can go into your generic welding shop today and find them
using it as shielding gas for MIG welding.

When and if the supply runs out it is gone because it escapes from the
earths atmosphere. Perhaps someday the huge plastic bags will return.

From: (Don Wilkins)
Newsgroups: sci.chem
Subject: Re: Helium Production
Date: Sat, 04 Jan 1997 17:05:11 GMT

On Fri, 03 Jan 1997 19:56:55 +0000 (GMT), J M Woodgate
<> wrote:

>In article <01bbf9b9$4221d4c0$f480968e@04274769>, Zhaoqing Liu
><> wrote:
>> I guess it comes from the air by distillation in the same way as liquid
>> oxygen and nitrogen.
>> John D. Borneman <> wrote in article
>> <>...
>> > Can anybody tell me how helium is "produced"?  I have found a great deal 
>> > of information, including the major sources (gas wells in the US), 
>> > production amounts, usages, etcetera, but no info on how the helium is 
>> > extracted from - - what I assume is - - natural gas wells.
>> > 
>> > I can guess that helium "extraction" could involve temperature and/or 
>> > pressure, but I thought I'd find out if anyone out there knew the real 
>> > process.
>> > 
>> > My wife is a technologist at a medical MRI facility, and is often asked 
>> > by patients where the helium used in cooling the MRI magnet comes from. 
>> > She thought that it would be nice to have an answer better than "helium 
>> > delivery trucks".
>> > 
>> > Thanks a lot
>> > 
>> > John Borneman
>> >
>> > 
>No. there is nowhere near enough helium (5.2 ppm) in the atmosphere
>for its extraction to be a real commercial proposition. It does come
>from natural gas wells, mostly AFAIK in the USA.

Where it can run as high as 2%.

>Since the natural gas contains hydrogen as well, I suppose cryogenic
>distillation is involved.

Funny how the damn trees obscure the forest. Cryogenic distillation
will separate most of the gases but don't you suppose it might be
easier to just convert the hydrogen to water and adsorb the water
rather than trying a cryogenic distillation?  Those damn distillations
near absolute zero tend to be pricey even by government standards.

From: (Don Wilkins)
Newsgroups: rec.crafts.metalworking
Date: Mon, 02 Nov 1998 01:04:51 GMT

On Fri, 30 Oct 1998 22:17:55 -0800, Peter Moss <>

>Related trivia...
>The story I've been told is that they have to extract helium from certain
>natural gas wells as it is not retained in the atmosphere (it escapes
>into space). It collects slowly in the gas pockets, being a byproduct of
>decay of radioactive stuff in the Earths crust. It's stockpiled in
>anticipation of the sources eventualy running out.

More trivia...

You have most of that correct. One of the advantages of being long in
the tooth is that you worked through some of what is history to
others. "Have to" is a poor choice of words. They had been extracting
helium from the atmosphere (.005) and "had to" extract it from natural
gas at fairly large percentages. It is a bit easier to separate helium
from a relatively heavy organic gas and in addition some of the Texas
gas wells were running as high as 7-8% helium!!

When I first started work at one of the first and largest industrial
research laboratories helium was scarce. In fact  the US had the only
known supplies. This lab had its own helium liquefaction facility and
AFAIK was the only private helium liquefaction facility in the

The fellows doing research with liquid helium had huge plastic bags in
their labs and the helium vented from their experimental setups was
collected in these bags. Periodically you would see one of these
characters hiking over to the liquefaction building with their bags of
helium in tow. Later you would see a large Dewar of liquid helium
going back into their lab. They got their quota of "new" helium but in
addition were able to extract and use it over and over again. Nice
advantage over competitors.

Helium was scarce, the supplies were thought to be very limited and
yes it does escape the earth's atmosphere.

The discovery of the presence of helium in natural gas was a real
bonanza but helium was still treated as something which was very
limited and was not replenished. The National Bureau of Standards
started collecting helium from natural gas and storing it in huge
underground caves or mines. I believe they were salt caves or mines.

This sort of helped the gas companies because gas is sold on a BTU
basis and helium is pretty low on BTUs. Before the discovery they were
shipping stuff that was degrading their product. Once the government
was buying (subsidizing?) the removal of helium they were also
shipping more BTUs per cu ft and getting paid for the product

I thought that the collection and subsidy by the NBS had stopped
several years ago but perhaps not so. It is a rare government subsidy
that gets cut from the pork barrel.

Argon on the other hand occurs at ~1% in the atmosphere and doesn't
escape if released to the atmosphere.

From: (Don Wilkins)
Newsgroups: rec.crafts.metalworking
Date: Mon, 02 Nov 1998 01:04:48 GMT

On Sat, 31 Oct 1998 03:33:20 GMT, (Jeff DelPapa)

>In article <>,
>Don Wilkins <> wrote:
>>On Fri, 30 Oct 1998 02:34:59 GMT, David Thuss <>
>>>> Helium was the original TIG shielding gas ( Linde's "Heliarc")
>>>> It should be good for MIG too.
>>>....It'll work fine but is more expensive than Argon, and generally
>>>harder to obtain.
>>Gee the local grocery stores and flower shops all have a cylinder of
>>helium for filling party balloons so it can't be too hard to
>>obtain.The damned things head off in the sunset when the little kid
>>lets go of the string out in the parking lot so it must be helium.
>That stuff is helium/air mix.  Enough helium to loft the balloon, the
>rest, nice cheap air.  Pure helium is available from a lot fewer
>places, and at much higher prices.

You learn something everyday (hopefully) but I never knew that.

I went over to one of the local balloon fillers and asked him if he
was filling balloons with an air-helium mixture instead of pure
helium. He said he didn't think so and pulled out his invoice from his
supplier who is a welding supplier. It said "helium". Now if in fact
it is an air-helium mixture it would appear to be fraud.

I then went to his supplier and asked if the cylinders of helium that
they were selling to the balloon fillers was pure helium or a mixture.
He said he thought it was pure helium but since it was Saturday he
couldn't call the distributer until Monday.

Incidentally the price for one cylinder (about five feet high) was
$76. Used to know the designation for that but......

I stopped by the local machine shop and inquired about what he used
for welding aluminum. As expected he said argon. I asked why he didn't
use helium and he replied that it was more expensive and you could get
a better weld with argon.

I asked further about the cost of helium and he took me over to the
another part of his shop and pointed to a cylinder of helium which was
buried deep in the corner. The dialog went like this:

Welder: You see that helium cylinder?
Answer: yes
Welder: When that cylinder is empty it goes all the way to Texas, gets
filled, and is then returned.
My question: Where do the argon cylinders go for filling?
Welder: Minneapolis.
My next comment: Must be a whole bunch of shipping and handling cost
on the helium?
Welder: Yup.

Now this is northern Minnesota so the difference in shipping costs
between Mpls & Texas is substantial.

My next Question: Do you have any difficulty obtaining helium?
Welder: Nope. Just call and they deliver.

I understand that helium is more expensive (and I know why) but up
here in the boondocks helium is not difficult to obtain and I don't
believe I learned anything about filling balloons.

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