By Adam Alsobrook, Project Reviewer, Division of Architecture
Named for the Greek word for the sun, the element helium was discovered by French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen and British astronomer Norman Lockyer in 1868 by analyzing spectrographs of the sun, but naturally occurring helium was not isolated on Earth until 1895. In the late 1890s, scientists discovered that natural gas contained varying quantities of helium, which they theorized was a by-product of the decay of radioactive elements trapped in pockets of natural gas deep underground. By 1900, natural gas deposits had been discovered in 17 states, but the natural gas deposits containing the largest percentages of helium were located in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
Just prior to the U.S. entering World War I, scientist Clifford Seibel held the world’s entire supply of pure helium gas in a glass bottle. The less than half a cubic foot of helium in the bottle was worth about $1,250 at the time, which is equivalent to about $27,000 today. Seibel studied helium as an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas and joined the university faculty shortly after his graduation in 1913. He presented his extensive research on helium to a meeting of chemical engineers in early 1917 and declared that he had not found a practical application for the gas, which up until that time had mainly been treated as an impurity to be removed from natural gas before combustion.
However, around this time the U.S. military was interested in the use of helium as a lifting gas in lighter-than-air craft as a potential replacement for flammable hydrogen gas. The U.S. Army used hydrogen-filled balloons for observation purposes during the Civil War, and both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy continued to experiment with hydrogen-filled balloons and dirigibles up until the U.S. joined the conflict in Europe in 1917. The U.S. Bureau of Mines was directed to lead the effort of developing a process to extract helium from natural gas, and the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy each contributed $50,000 toward research and the construction of three experimental helium extraction plants. In order to prevent the Germans from learning about the helium production effort, the entire project was cloaked in secrecy from the beginning, with helium being referred to either as “X” gas or argon during the war. These three experimental plants produced 225,000 cubic feet of helium by the end of World War I.
U.S. Helium Production Plant No. 1—Fort Worth, Tarrant County
Two of these experimental plants were constructed in what was then a rural area a few miles north of Fort Worth, located near the present-day intersection of Blue Mound Road and Meacham Boulevard. One of the two Fort Worth plants was so successful that in October 1918, the U.S. government awarded a contract to the Linde Air Products Company for the construction of a permanent helium production plant on the site of experimental Plant No. 2. Constructed by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Engineering at a cost of approximately $3.5 million and utilizing separation apparatus supplied by Linde, U.S. Helium Production Plant No. 1 began production in April 1921. The Linde helium extraction process first called for compressing and cooling the natural gas arriving at the plant via pipeline from the Lone Star Gas Company’s Petrolia field near Wichita Falls. Hydrocarbons, oxygen, and nitrogen in the natural gas condensed during the initial compression and refrigeration steps and were removed first, and the carbon dioxide was then removed by spraying the gas with lime water. The remaining helium gas was not affected by the repeated compression and refrigeration, and was then captured and stored in high-pressure cylinders.
The original helium plant complex included an office and laboratory building, the compression building, the separation building, a boiler and pump house, a carbon dioxide removal building, and various other storage buildings, a railroad siding, and utility systems. During the plant’s first four months of operation, just more than 260,000 cubic feet of helium was produced at a cost of approximately $0.50 per cubic foot, and by the end of 1922 the production cost had fallen to about $0.17 per cubic foot. U.S. Helium Production Plant #1 was the first facility in the world to extract helium from natural gas in commercially viable quantities, and in less than a decade had slashed the cost of helium from nearly $2,500 per cubic foot to $0.03 per cubic foot by the end of 1923.
This dramatic reduction in the cost of helium occurred at a very opportune time for the U.S. military lighter-than-air aviation program. First, the crash and explosion of the U.S. Army airship Roma at Hampton Roads, Va., on February 21, 1922 resulted in the loss of 34 lives, and then in October 1922 U.S. Army airship C-2 crashed and exploded near her hangar at Brooks Field in San Antonio, fortunately with no loss of life. Within days of the loss of the C-2, the U.S. Army and Navy were making public announcements about their plans to abandon the use of hydrogen in favor of helium as the lifting gas for their lighter-than-air craft. Less than two years after the loss of the Roma, large dirigibles such as the U.S. Navy’s U.S.S. Los Angeles and Shenandoah were emptied of their hydrogen and refilled with helium stored at a refining plant at the Lakehurst, N.J. naval air station. An airship the size of the U.S.S. Shenandoah required about 2 million cubic feet of helium, so needless to say the U.S. military was very pleased at the prospect of decreasing helium production prices.
The U.S. Helium Production Plant #1 also served as a stopping point for U.S. military airships on cross-country voyages. A 160-foot-tall mooring mast was constructed about one-half mile northwest of the plant, and in October 1924, the 680-foot long U.S.S. Shenandoah dirigible moored at the production plant. The U.S.S. Los Angeles also moored at the mast in October 1928.
By 1928, the long-anticipated depletion of the Petrolia natural gas field resulted in less helium production at the Fort Worth plant. The U.S. Bureau of Mines had been given control of U.S. government helium production in 1925, and had conducted extensive research to locate additional helium-bearing natural gas deposits. One large deposit of natural gas was found in the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas, and the construction of a new helium extraction facility began in 1928 at a new site along the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad line about seven miles west of Amarillo. U.S. Helium Production Plant #1 in Fort Worth closed on January 10, 1929, and helium production was shifted to the new plant in Amarillo. Some of the equipment at the Fort Worth plant was shipped to the new plant in Amarillo for reuse.
Not long after the helium production operations moved to Amarillo, the newly created Airways Division of the Lighthouse Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce moved into the vacant complex. The purpose of the agency was to maintain airway beacons, landing fields, and establish communications towers and buildings. Various reorganizations of U.S. government agencies over the next several decades resulted in the complex becoming the home of the Southwest Regional Office of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The former helium production plant complex was declared surplus property by the U.S. government in 1997. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) initiated consultation with the Texas Historical Commission (THC) under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. During the Section 106 consultation, Buildings 1, 2, 3, 7, 11 (original), and the sluiceway, pump house, and pond at the U.S. Helium Production Plant #1 were determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. A Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) document was necessary to resolve the adverse effect of the National Register-eligible property passing out of federal ownership. Under the terms of the MOA, the complex was documented to Historic American Buildings Survey Level II standards, and a preservation covenant placed on the property in perpetuity. The property was purchased by a private owner in 1998 and currently remains in private ownership. The property is not open to the public.
Amarillo Helium Plant—Amarillo, Potter County
The U.S. Bureau of Mines began negotiating leasing and drilling rights to the Cliffside gas field in 1926, and by 1929 had acquired rights to 70,000 acres. In the summer of 1928, construction began on a 12-mile pipeline from the Cliffside gas field to the 18.5-acre Amarillo Helium Plant site. During 1928–29, several permanent buildings and structures were constructed at the site, including the Administration Building, Laboratory, Garage, Power House, Separation Building, Instrument and Carpenter Shop Building, Machine and Welding Shops, Carbon Dioxide Removal Building, Storage Warehouse, Loading Dock, Navy Building, High Pressure Storage Facility, and three gas holding tanks. In addition to these buildings and structures, roadways, water wells, an elevated water tank, and utility lines were constructed.
Helium extraction at the Amarillo plant started in early 1929 around the same time that the Fort Worth plant closed. Equipment from the Fort Worth plant was shipped to Amarillo to supply the new plant. The initial cost of helium production at the Amarillo plant was about $0.023 per cubic foot, and by 1934 this figure had dropped to $0.0096 per cubic foot, or less than 1 cent per cubic foot. During the early 1930s, the plant was capable of producing 24 million cubic feet of helium per year. However, during peacetime the military had relatively low demand for helium for their lighter-than-air craft, and the losses of the U.S. Navy dirigibles U.S.S. Akron in 1933 and U.S.S. Macon in 1935 almost forced the Amarillo plant to close in late 1935–early 1936. Compared with the demands of the U.S. military, small amounts of helium were used by the U.S. Weather Bureau, the medical profession, and private dirigible operators; by 1937, due to the lack of domestic helium demand, the U.S. Congress was petitioned to make helium commercially available to private companies and foreign nations. The explosion of the German dirigible Hindenburg on May 6, 1937 illustrated the danger of using hydrogen as the lifting gas for dirigibles and renewed interest in allowing the commercial sale of helium produced by the U.S. government.
The passage of the Helium Act of 1937 allowed the U.S. Bureau of Mines to sell helium to private companies and foreign nations, though in the years leading up to World War II, sales of helium to Germany were not allowed. The entry of the U.S. into World War II caused a dramatic increase in helium production, and the Amarillo Helium Plant served as the headquarters for new U.S. government helium production plants in Exell (Moore County, Texas), Kansas, and New Mexico. Between 1941 and 1945, several new buildings were constructed at the Amarillo plant to help meet the wartime demand for helium. Helium was used for military airships, welding various metals, the medical field, and in the development of atomic weapons.
The demand for helium dropped off sharply after the end of World War II, and by the late 1940s, the Amarillo plant stopped producing helium. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Exell helium plant produced virtually all the world’s helium supply, and the Amarillo plant was used as headquarters and research center for the U.S. government helium production effort. The demand for helium increased sharply during the 1950s and 1960s space race and Cold War atomic weapons production activities, and scientific research led to breakthroughs in the use of helium in laser technology, satellites, and telecommunications.
The THC placed a subject marker at the Amarillo Helium Plant site in 1965 to mark the significance of this historic site. The Amarillo Helium Plant complex was declared surplus property by the U.S. government in 1996. The U.S. GSA initiated consultation with the THC again under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. During the Section 106 consultation, the Amarillo Helium Plant was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places at the national level of significance. An MOA document was necessary to resolve the adverse effect of the National Register-eligible property passing out of federal ownership. Under the terms of the MOA, the complex was documented to Historic American Engineering Record standards, and a preservation covenant placed on the property in perpetuity. The property was purchased by a private owner in 2007 and currently remains in private ownership. The property, located at the southeast corner of Helium Plant Road and West Amarillo Boulevard, is not open to the public, but the historical subject marker can be viewed from West Amarillo Boulevard.
Of further interest to heritage tourists is a historic railroad tank car specially designed to carry helium from the Amarillo and Exell plants to locations across the U.S. The tank car is on public display at the Amarillo Railroad Museum.
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