Helium Production Process and Technology

Table of Contents

Aerial photo of the Amarillo Helium Plant, likely around the 1970s.

 

 


Overview

The main purpose of the Amarillo Helium Plant was to extract helium from natural gas (fig. 3-1). Helium then needed to be purified. To purify the helium, the plant filtered out other molecules like carbon dioxide. Next, helium was compressed and stored in metal cylinders. Cylinders of helium then were shipped for storage or distribution using trains or trucks. The design for the plant kept all these purposes in mind. The US Navy began designing the plant in 1928. The US Bureau of Mines worked with the Navy to make sure that the design met the plant’s needs.

Relationship between Helium and the Natural Gas Industry

Helium occurs very rarely in nature. Some types of natural gas actually contain helium atoms, though. Scientists can separate these helium atoms from other molecules in natural gas. The Bureau of Mines knew that helium plants needed a source of helium-containing natural gas nearby. The site selected for the Amarillo Helium Plant was only about six miles south of the Cliffside Natural Gas Field (fig. 3-2). A pipeline connected the Amarillo Helium Plant to the Cliffside Natural Gas Field.

Helium Separation Process

Separating helium from natural gas formed the core of the plant’s purpose. Early separation techniques used charcoal filters. After 1939, the process for purifying helium changed. The plant began cooling the gas at very low temperatures. This made elements other than helium condense and liquify. Temperatures needed to get as low as minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Helium remained a gas even at this very low temperature.

Specialized buildings and equipment at the plant supported this new process. First, the pipeline brought the natural gas to a specialized building. Between 1930 and 1942, the helium first went to the “CO2 Removal Building” (shaded yellow on the 1929 site plan below, fig. 3-3). After 1942, a “Pump House” with more advanced equipment replaced the CO2 Removal Building in this process (fig. 3-4). (The Pump House site is shaded in purple on fig. 3-3.) Equipment in these buildings stripped away carbon dioxide, water, and heavy molecules that solidified. Next, the natural gas flowed into the “Separation Building” (shaded blue on fig. 3-3). Equipment in the Separation Building included dryers, heat exchangers, and charcoal filters. The goal was reaching “Grade A” purity. To reach Grade A, the gas needed to contain 99.995% helium. Purified Grade A helium then was packaged for shipment.

The point of the separation process was to yield pure helium. Purification was very important for safety. Any carbon left in the helium could catch fire and explode.

The leftover natural gas could be used for power, and in fact, some of the natural gas powered the Amarillo Helium Plant. The complex had its own generator to turn leftover natural gas into electricity. The generator was located in the “Power House” (fig. 3-5, shaded orange on fig. 3-3). The plant sold surplus natural gas to nearby private gas companies.

Helium Compression

Once extracted, purified Grade A helium had to be compressed (fig. 3-6). Compressing the gas helped separate off any leftover nitrogen. Compression also helped make the helium compact for efficient storage and shipping. The compression equipment was in the Power House, along with the generators (fig. 3-7). Equipment included two nitrogen compressors and two helium pumps. The nitrogen compressors were manufactured by the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation of Vernon, Ohio. The helium pumps came from Worthington Industries in Columbus, Ohio. Worthington Industries also manufactured special, high-pressure metal storage cylinders. Large cylinders could measure 40 feet long. Small cylinders stood about 4 feet tall. Each small cylinder could hold about 200 cubic feet of helium. How did they squeeze such a large amount of gas into the tanks? The helium compressor applied 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to compact the gas.

Helium Storage

The cylinders also made storing the helium convenient. Empty small cylinders were kept in the “Cylinder Storage Area” next to the CO2 Removal Building (fig. 3-8). Large empty cylinders waited in outside storage yards. Filled cylinders of helium were stored in the “High Pressure Storage Building” (fig. 3-9). (The High Pressure Storage Building is shaded green in fig. 3-3 above.) The interior of the building featured special racks to hold the cylinders. This building also connected to loading docks to streamline distribution. Most helium storage took place away from Amarillo, though. The nearby Cliffside Field held a huge underground storage area (fig. 3-10). Having a supply of helium in reserve helped the US military stay prepared. Compressed helium could travel to the Cliffside storage area in cylinders or through a pipeline.

Distribution

Military bases and industries around the US relied on helium. Railroads and highways connected the helium plant to these consumers. Beginning in World War II, the Amarillo plant became the distribution hub for helium in the US (fig. 3-11). The pipeline from the Cliffside storage area supplied most of the helium for distribution. The flow of helium through the pipeline was challenging to stop. This created demand for an efficient distribution system, which is reflected in the design of the Amarillo plant (fig. 3-12). Before 1949, most shipments of helium from Amarillo traveled on trains. The original site plan for the plant placed loading docks near rail lines. Trains used special tank cars designed to hold the heavy weight of the helium cylinders. After 1949, more trucks began carrying helium. Trucking companies designed special tanks to hold the helium. The flowchart below shows how the plant changed to respond. As the flowchart shows, new buildings were added at the south of the plant. These new buildings included loading docks and storage warehouses (fig. 3-13). In 1956, the old railroad tracks on the west and southwest sides of the plant were removed. The railroad tracks on the south side of the plant remained. This allowed both trains and trucks to use the new loading docks on the south side of the plant.


Learn more about legacy of Route 66 and the Amarillo Helium Plant.