The Amarillo Helium Plant - Introduction

Table of Contents

Aerial photo of the Amarillo Helium Plant, likely around the 1970s.



The Purpose and Need for Helium

Helium is an element that is found in natural gas. In the early 1900s, the US military tried to increase the nation’s supply of helium. Why? Helium can be an incredibly useful element.

  • Helium is lightweight.
  • Helium can conduct heat.
  • Helium stays in gas form at very cold temperatures.
  • Helium gas can move through solid materials since the molecule is so small.
  • Helium does not react with other elements easily.

Until the early 1900s, though, helium was very rare. In the early 1900s, scientists learned how to isolate helium. They stripped it from natural gas. In the 1910s, engineers began to think about new uses for helium.

Current events of the day shaped their ideas. Between 1914 and 1918, World War I raged across the globe. Competition for rare natural resources was a major cause of the war. Tapping a new resource like helium could give the nation a military edge.

Learn More! The National Park Service provides more information about the global historic context that led to World War I. Learn more from the THC about the recent observance of the World War I Centennial.

During World War I, the US Navy realized that helium could make airships float, since the gas is lighter than air. World War II led to more advancements in helium airships. Over time, the military and private industries learned about a wide variety of uses for helium – as described in the section on the National Defense and the Aerospace Industry.

Development of the Amarillo Helium Plant

As the need for helium grew, the American government looked to produce more. The US Bureau of Mines took the lead in building helium plants. The Bureau of Mines led research on all types of minerals. This included natural gas, which included helium atoms. The helium atoms could be separated from the rest of the natural gas. All helium plants needed to be close to a source of natural gas. Texas held a supply of natural gas underground. As a result, many of the earliest helium plants were built in Texas. In 1915, the Bureau of Mines built the Petrolia Helium Plant near Wichita Falls. This was because the largest known supply of natural gas was in the nearby Petrolia Natural Gas Field. The Bureau of Mines also built two helium plants in Fort Worth in 1918. Natural gas flowed to Fort Worth through pipelines from Petrolia. The natural gas quickly ran out near Petrolia, though. By 1927, the Bureau of Mines began searching for new supplies of natural gas. They found a large supply at the Cliffside Natural Gas Field. Cliffside sat about 20 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas. The Bureau of Mines then began planning a new helium plant in Amarillo. They also wanted to build a new helium research facility on the same property.

An early step in planning was to choose a site for the new plant. Many factors influenced their choice.

  • The site needed access to natural gas.
  • Railroads needed to be close by for shipping.
  • Highways close by would help shipping, too.
  • A big site without other buildings nearby was better for safety.
  • A town needed to be close enough for workers to commute daily.

In 1928, the Bureau of Mines found the right site. It was located about eight miles west of downtown Amarillo, Texas (fig. i). The Rock Island Railroad connected to the site. So did Route 66. Construction of the new plant began later in 1928. By 1929, the new Amarillo Helium Plant was ready to open. The volume of helium produced at the Amarillo plant quickly grew. By about 1934, the Amarillo Helium Plant was the only commercial helium plant in the world.

In the 1940s, World War II created new demands for helium. The research labs discovered ways to refine more helium. They also learned how to make higher-quality helium. The Bureau of Mines constructed new buildings at the Amarillo Helium Plant to help with the process (fig. ii). In 1943, they also constructed the Exell Helium Plant about 35 miles to the north.

After World War II, demand for helium slowly declined. The Bureau of Mines stockpiled more helium than it sold. Some people also thought that private industries should make helium instead of the government. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bureau of Mines began making the helium plant operate like a business (fig. iii). The Amarillo Helium Plant had to pay for its expenses with profits from the helium sold.

Helium sales in 1968 and 1969.

As funding declined, staff had to be laid off. By 1970, the Amarillo Helium Plant stopped making helium. A few remaining employees worked in the lab. Other employees still worked in administrative roles supporting the Exell plant (fig. iv). In 1996, a new law halted all federal funding for helium operations. The Amarillo Helium Plant closed its doors two years later, in 1998.

Learn more about the Amarillo Helium Plant and the National Defense and the Aerospace Industry.