How Is Helium Produced?

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"How Is Helium Produced?"

Production: Although Helium is one of the most common elements in the universe it is a rare gas on earth. It exists in the atmosphere in such small quantities (less than five parts per million) that recovering it from the air is uneconomical. Helium is produced as a by-product of the refining of natural gas, which is carried out on a commercial scale in the USA and Poland. In these areas natural gas contains a relatively high concentration of Helium which has accumulated as a result of radioactive decay of heavy elements within the earth's crust. Helium is supplied to distribution centres throughout the world in liquid form in large cryogenic containers. The Helium is filled into liquid containers, gas cylinders and cylinder packs as necessary.

History of Helium Production: Government involvement in helium conservation dates to the Helium Act of 1925 which authorized the Bureau of Mines to build and operate a large-scale helium extraction and purification plant. From 1929 until 1960 the federal government was the only domestic helium producer. In 1960, Congress amended the Helium Act to provide incentives to natural gas producers for stripping natural gas of its helium, for purchase of the separated helium by the government, and for its long-term storage. With over 960 million cubic meters (34.6 billion cubic feet) of helium in government storage and a large private helium recovery industry, questions arise as to the need for either the federal helium extraction program or the federally maintained helium stockpile.

In a move which would take the federal government out of the helium business, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act (H.R. 873) as part of the Seven- Year Balanced Budget Reconciliation Act of 1995 (H.R. 2491). Although the measure died when the President vetoed the Budget Act on December 6, 1995, the Administration has made a goal the privatization of the federal helium program. On April 30, 1996, the House suspended the rules and passed H.R. 3008, the Helium Privatization Act as agreed to in the House-Senate conference on the Budget Act. Subsequently, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee amended the bill to provide for the National Academy of Sciences to study how best to dispose of the helium reserve. On September 26, 1996, with limited time remaining for the 104th Congress, the House again suspended the rules and passed H.R. 4168, a new bill containing the Senate Committee language. This would avoid the need for a conference if the Senate would also pass the same bill. The Senate did so on September 28, 1996. This report reviews the origin and development of the Federal Helium Program; analyzes the choices that Congress faced in terminating the program; reviews the issues that the National Academy of Sciences will study, and summarizes H.R. 4168.

Federal interest in helium began with World War I when its military value as an inert lifting gas was recognized by the Army and Navy. The Bureau of Mines' involvement in the Helium Program dates back to passage of the Helium Act of 1925 under which the Bureau was authorized to build and operate a large-scale helium extraction and purification plant. This plant went into operation in 1929 at Amarillo, Texas. Demand increased significantly during World War II and four more plants were built, including the Exell, Texas plant, which is now the Bureau's only operating plant. Private helium operations followed passage of the Helium Act Amendments of 1960 (P.L. 86-777) which authorized the Secretary of the Interior (authority delegated to the Bureau of Mines) to enter into long- term contracts for the acquisition and conservation of helium to be stored in the Cliffside Reservoir near Amarillo, Texas. The Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to operate and maintain helium production and purification plants and related storage, transmission, and shipping facilities. The Act also authorized the Secretary to...
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