Amarillo facility avoids the “helium cliff”

Sep 27, 2013

Postcard view from the mid-20th century of the Amarillo Helium Plant operated by the US Dept. Of Interior as part of the Federal Helium Reserve.
Postcard view from the mid-20th century of the Amarillo Helium Plant operated by the US Dept. Of Interior as part of the Federal Helium Reserve.
Credit High Country News

Amarillo’s Federal Helium Reserve got a reprieve Thursday as the Senate unanimously approved a bill extending the reserve, a day after the House approved the measure, also unanimously. Without the legislation, the facility would have been forced to shut down on October 7th under older legislation.  The reserve provides 42% of the country’s helium and 35% of the world’s.

An abrupt closure of the facility would have triggered nearly immediate problems for many industrial, defense and scientific activities, including: welding, commercial diving, testing rocket engines, guiding air-to-air missiles, operating MRI machines and making flat-screen televisions, fiber optic cables and semiconductor chips.  Helium’s wide range of uses is based on it having the lowest melting and boiling points of any element along with a high degree of molecular stability.  Rising global demand has already led to shortages, which added to the importance of continuing the reserve’s authorization and operation.

Texas highway historical marker commemorating the Amarillo Helium Plant, located near W Amarillo Blvd and Helium Road.
Texas highway historical marker commemorating the Amarillo Helium Plant, located near W Amarillo Blvd and Helium Road.
Credit Waymarking.com

The reserve was established in 1925 as a strategic supply of gas for airships for the US military.  It was located in Amarillo because of its proximity to the Hugoton and other natural gas fields in southwest Kansas and the panhandle of Oklahoma as well as the Panhandle Field in Texas, all of which contain unusually high percentages of helium (0.3% to 2.7%).  The Amarillo facility was built in 1929 and now includes a processing plant, underground reserve storage and a 450-mile pipeline system. 

A profile the Federal Helium Reserve’s economic importance, legislative history and ongoing privatization can be found in this Wall Street Journal article.  Nature, the international weekly journal of science, has this article on the scientific importance of the reserve and actions taken in anticipation of a “helium cliff”.  For an audio story on the reserve, listen to this NPR story from earlier in the year.

Deward Cawthon, a plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve, walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011.
Deward Cawthon, a plant operator at the Federal Helium Reserve, walks through the Federal Crude Helium Enrichment Unit near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011.
Credit npr.org/Joyce Marshall/MCT/Landov
Signs of the global helium shortage.
Signs of the global helium shortage.
Credit Thomas Cizauskas / flickr commons