National Defense and the Aerospace Industry

Table of Contents

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




Universities began researching helium in the early 1900s. Researchers helped the US government understand uses for helium. They hoped helium would be useful for defense and flight. They also hoped to learn how to better extract and refine helium. Goals for research at the Amarillo Helium Plant included: 

  • Increase the efficiency of helium processing 

  • Make helium processing cheaper

  • Increase the amount of helium produced

  • Improve the purity of processed helium

The team of researchers in Amarillo succeeded (fig. 1-1). They increased efficiency and reduced the price of helium by 1933. Having plenty of helium allowed the US to fly blimps in World War II. By 1949, the team also increased the quantity and purity of helium by using ultra-cold temperatures to separate helium from impurities. The study of ultra-cold temperatures is known as “cryogenics.” These discoveries in cryogenics helped fuel jets and rockets. They even helped spacecraft keep pressure level in outer space.

Learn More! Listen to this 1998 oral history with former NASA employee Guy Thibodaux, explaining how helium was used to propel rockets.

Dr. Clifford W. Seibel

The lead researcher at the Amarillo Helium Plant was Dr. Clifford W. Seibel (fig. 1-2). He was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1890. As a graduate student, Seibel helped pioneer extracting helium from natural gas. Seibel finished his PhD in 1915. After that, the US Bureau of Mines approached him. They hoped helium could help fill lighter-than-air blimps for World War I. Seibel began working for the Bureau of Mines in 1917. Early in his career, he worked at the Fort Worth Helium Plant. There, he demonstrated that helium could be purified using charcoal filters. In 1929, he helped design the Amarillo Helium Plant. Seibel continued to work at the Amarillo plant until retiring in 1958. During his career, he also researched using ultra-cold temperatures to purify helium. His lifelong work earned him the nickname “Mr. Helium.”


Applications of Helium

New research found many uses for helium. Most uses involved aircraft or space flight. Other types of uses involved medicine and meteorology. Figures 1-3 through 1-11 below summarize the most common uses of helium in the twentieth century.

Learn more about the employees of the Amarillo Helium Plant.


Photo Gallery

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  • Summary of Uses: Figure 1-3a. Report summarizing helium’s uses. Source: “Annual Report: 1960.”