Helium may be lighter than air, but it comes out of the ground. Kansas, where helium supplies were first found, has been one of the world's biggest producers of helium for more than century. That may be about to end.
A shortage of the gas over the past two months has pointed up the precariousness of the world supply of helium, which is used in MRI machines, semiconductor manufacturing, deep sea diving, welding and, yes, party balloons.
The short-term shortage is easing, but the impact was felt everywhere.
At Exquisite Party Factory, a party store in Newton's Chisholm Trail Shopping Center, co-owner R.J. Bowling called to refill her helium supply last month and was told there wasn't any. That was an unpleasant shock, she said.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
She covered by switching to more air-filled balloons in elaborate designs. Her supplier was able to find enough helium for a bottle a third of the usual size — she took it and was grateful to get it.
"There was no choice because literally there was no other helium," she said.
Kansas finds helium
Scientists first identified helium in the 1860s by studying the spectrum produced by the sun. But it was thought to be virtually non-existent on Earth.
Helium is inert, which means it doesn't combine with other elements to create molecules heavy enough to remain earthbound. All of the helium that was present when the planet was created or arrived by meteor has long since migrated into space.
And that's the way it stayed until 1903 when a gushing gas well was drilled near Dexter, about 60 miles southeast of Wichita.
According to an account by the American Chemical Society, the townspeople of Dexter thought the well was the economic boost they needed. Days later, after band music and patriotic speeches, town officials tried to light the jet with a burning bale of hay to celebrate their good fortune.
But the gas repeatedly snuffed out the burning hay. The disappointed crowd eventually left, and the city understandably did little to publicize the event.
But the state geologist, Erasmus Haworth, a professor at the University of Kansas, heard about the incident and took some of the puzzling gas back to analyze.
Colleagues discovered the gas was just 15 percent natural gas. The rest was mostly nitrogen, but it also included a mysterious gas that they finally identified as helium.
The helium found near Dexter, and everywhere else on Earth, was the product of millions of years of radioactive decay deep below surface and trapped in particular geological formations so it doesn't leak out.
A strategic gas
Helium wasn't valued much until World War I when it was seen as a safer alternative to hydrogen for dirigibles.
In 1925, the federal government took over helium production in the gas fields of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and western Kansas to guarantee a supply during wartime.
The U.S. government had a world monopoly on helium and in the mid-1930s refused to sell any to the Zeppelin Co. in Germany, which is why the Hindenburg was filled with highly-flammable hydrogen when it exploded.
Today, the federal Bureau of Land Management still operates a large extraction plant north of Amarillo, Texas. It remains one of the largest sources of helium in the world.
Every year it is mandated by law to supply 2.1 billion cubic feet of a gas that is 78 percent helium to six private refiners along a pipeline that runs from Amarillo to southwestern Kansas.
Those privately-owned plants refine the crude gas to pure helium and sell it, said Leslie Theiss, manager of the BLM operation.
But the fields are now close to exhaustion, she said. They are already losing pressure.
"It's expected to last until 2020," she said.
The reason for August and September's shortage was that Exxon Mobil shut down its large Shute Creek Gas Plant in western Wyoming for maintenance.
Production resumed in mid-September, but it will take awhile for the disruption to work its way out, said Phil Kornbluth, executive vice president, Global Helium, at Matheson Tri-Gas.
Such shortages are a risk for the next few years because world demand nearly matches world supply. There was a more severe shortage in 2007.
"When you have a tight supply balance to begin with, maybe 95 percent, it doesn't take much of a shut down to cause a shortage," Kornbluth said.
Helium is produced by just seven countries: the U.S., Algeria, Canada, China, Qatar, Poland and Russia. The U.S. produces and consumes by far the most of any country. And most of the U.S. production comes from the BLM operation.
But that may be changing. Kornbluth said a couple smaller plants, one in Wyoming and another in Algeria, will be added next year, and a large new refinery will open in Qatar in late 2013.
That, he said, should push supply comfortably ahead of demand at least until closer to 2020 when the Amarillo plant is projected to close.
He said his best guess is that as less helium is pumped through the pipeline into Kansas over the coming decade, there will be consolidation among the six helium refineries in the area.
And with that, Kansas may exit the helium era.