KU approaching centennial of historic helium isolation
Professor's discovery helped float an industry
By Roger Martin
As viewers of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade ogle Jimmy Neutron or Cheeseasaurus Rex on Nov. 24, they may want to pause to remember a KU chemistry professor and assistant who helped the giant balloons stay afloat with a discovery they made 100 years ago next month.
On Dec. 7, 1905, the professor, Hamilton Cady, and assistant David McFarland, found a staggering amount of helium in a sample of natural gas taken from a wellhead in Dexter – 1.84 percent, according to KU emeritus chemistry professor Grover Everett.
It was far more than the mere traces extracted 10 years before from a uranium mineral called clevite, Everett says.
And it was enough, in fact, to lead to its eventual use in products of greater utility than balloons, and for purposes more profound than making a voice sound squeaky.
Yet Cady and McFarland "had no ideas for its commercial use," says Everett.
In the late 1990s, Everett applied to the American Chemical Society asking that Bailey Hall, where Cady and McFarland made their discovery, be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark.
Bailey received the designation in 2000. About 40 such landmarks exist across the nation.
The story starts with the residents of Dexter whooping it up in May 1903, when a newly drilled well spewed natural gas.
Soon, they found something was wrong with their gas. When a burning bale of hay was pushed into the plume of the gaseous geyser, the gas didn't ignite.
KU geology professor Erasmus Haworth, also Kansas state geologist at the time, brought samples of the gas to Chemistry Hall at KU – today called Bailey Hall.
Two years later, Cady and McFarland found that the gas contained 15 percent methane, 72 percent nitrogen and about 10 percent other inert gases beside helium.
In 1907, Everett said, Cady presented the research results, declaring that "helium is no longer a rare element but a common element existing in goodly quantities for uses yet to be found for it."
Through the years, those uses were found – and an industry founded.
A commercial helium plant that could churn out liquid helium in quantity was established in 1965 in Otis – 165 miles, as the crow flies, from Dexter.
By 2002, 3.5 billion cubic feet of helium gas would be extracted annually from natural gas taken from fields worldwide, according to www.answers.com.
The first popular use for helium was to float blimps. Though helium was only 92 percent as buoyant as hydrogen, it would not burn.
In World War II, Everett said, listening devices lowered into the ocean from these blimps could detect enemy submarines up to five miles away.
Helium is useful to scuba divers, Everett said. When their tanks contain a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, they risk the bends if they surface too quickly. A helium-oxygen mix doesn't create the same problems.
Some 20 percent of all the helium collected is liquefied for use in magnetic resonance imaging equipment, Everett said.
Helium gas is also used in some forms of high-speed welding.
Helium gets its name from a Greek root, "helios," meaning "sun," because it was first detected on the sun's surface in 1868.
Many of the modern uses of helium require that it be a liquid. To make it liquefy requires dropping the temperature to about 452 below zero Fahrenheit, Everett says.
As a liquid, helium cools the instrument's electromagnets, helping them create sharper images in less time.
Of all the helium produced today, Everett said, 60 percent is liquefied and used as a coolant.