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From blimps to the space shuttle, helium's a historic gas

American Chemical Society

Chemical Society Honors University of Kansas Research on 'Hot Air' That Led to a New 20th Century Power Source

LAWRENCE, KAN., April 15 -- When Kansans first saw helium up close in the early 1900s, it was a public relations disaster. Today, the Kansas discovery of helium in natural gas is being cited as a historic landmark by the world's largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society, with the goal of raising public awareness about good science.

But back in 1903, a local company advertised a public demonstration of a new, productive gas well in the town of Dexter. The event was slated to climax with the lighting of the escaping gas to create a "pillar of flame" that could be seen for miles around. Trouble was, the gas wouldn't burn. The crowds left, disappointed. The drilling company, understandably, "did not wish that it be given great publicity."

It turns out that they were just ahead of their time. Just two years later -- while solving the mystery of the 'hot air' -- chemists at the University of Kansas in nearby Lawrence discovered that the natural gas from the Dexter well contained helium, thought at that time to be among the rarest elements on Earth. The discovery led to new ways to power craft ranging from blimps to the space shuttle, and provided new materials and methods in use by scientists today in a range of applications.

Representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemical Society will mark the discovery as a National Historic Chemical Landmark with a designation ceremony today on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. ACS President Daryle H. Busch, Ph.D., who also is a chemistry professor on the university's faculty, will present a bronze plaque to university Chancellor Robert E. Hemenway to mark the occasion. This year the university is celebrating the centennial of Bailey Hall, the site of the landmark discovery.

The university researchers' findings in their basement lab of the new chemistry building were reported at the 1906 national meeting of the American Chemical Society. After the 1906 research presentation, helium remained a curiosity for another decade, with the entire U.S. supply resting in three glass tubes on a shelf at the University of Kansas. Not until 1917 -- when the British suggested that the United States produce enough helium to inflate lighter-than-air craft for the Allied war effort -- did the work appear to have a practical application.

Large-scale production of helium to power blimps came too late for the World War I effort, but was used extensively by the United States Navy in the next world war, primarily to power blimps that provided safe escort to troop and supply ships. At the time, the Allies had a virtual monopoly on helium, because the only known gas wells capable of producing it in large quantities were located in the United States and Canada.

Helium is still considered a strategic reserve material by the United States and is used in a wide range of applications including the pressurization of the space shuttle's liquid propellant, deep-sea diving, magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals, weapons development, cooling for infrared detectors, and superconductivity research.

The American Chemical Society's National Historic Chemical Landmarks program honors milestones in the history of chemistry.


The discovery of helium in a natural gas will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society, Saturday, April 15, 2000 at 3 p.m. The event will take place in Bricker Auditorium, Budig Hall at the University of Kansas, Lawrence Campus. Graphics are available on the Web at

A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society ( scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.


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