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from Oil and Gas News (1919)

Valuable Balloon Gas First Discovered at Dexter, but Was Thought to be Worthless—It Wouldn't Light.

Kansas, and in fact the entire Mid-Continent oil and gas belt, which also includes Oklahoma and Texas, for many years has been wasting one of its most valuable products. And, with the exception of one small portion of the belt embraced in the Petrolia field, a short distance from Fort Worth, Tex., this waste still is going on. Not only have great quantities of a gas far more precious than fuel gas been permitted to escape, but drillers and producers have spilled much profanity over the unknown element.

But this same gas would have saved the United States and its Allies millions of dollars in the war, and would have saved the lives of many balloon observers. Had the Germans possessed it, their Zeppelins would have been almost invulnerable, and even now its quantity production promises more for the development of commercial air traffic than any other one thing. For it is the much talked of and little understood helium, a gas, which, while slightly heavier than hydrogen, still is much lighter than air, and is non-inflammable. Hydrogen, with which all balloons and dirigibles have been inflated heretofore, is highly inflammable.

So now oil and gas men are bewailing the ignorance which permitted a fortune to slip through their fingers; and down at Dexter, Kas., the people are regretting the prodigality with which they permitted their disappointing "wind gas" to escape. For Dexter was the first town in Kansas where helium was discovered.

It was in 1903, when a great gas well was drilled in. The nearest gas field at the time lay a considerable distance to the east, and the people of the little Southern Kansas town had visions of their village becoming a great manufacturing center. So it was agreed to “bring in the well” with fitting ceremony. The entire countryside gathered for the occasion, and a cheer went up as the cap was removed from the well and the gas roared forth. To make the demonstration more dramatic a lighted torch was thrust into the gas—and the torch went out.

Prof. H. P. Cady of the University of Kansas investigated the phenomenon and found in it helium, the presence of which on earth had been discovered only eight years before. Professor Cady's analysis showed the gas from the Dexter well to be largely composed of nitrogen, but he also found it contained 1.84 per cent helium. This is considered a rich content, and the greatest yet found is 2 per cent, discovered recently in the product of the Augusta, Kas., field by Dr. G. Sherburne Rogers of the United States Geological Survey, who describes the gas and tells its history in the National Geographic Magazine.

But back in 1903 the gas was not thought of any value except as a scientific curiosity, and no method was known for extracting it in quantities from other gases. So the Dexter well was permitted to dissipate its wealth into the atmosphere.

Found Only In America.

A few years later, however, someone, Doctor Rogers doesn't know who, discovered its adaptability for balloons. At the beginning of the war France and England scoured the earth in search of it, but without success, as the American field is the only one known in the world where it can be produced profitably. And then, when the United States entered the war, it was told of the value of helium for balloons, and someone remembered the discoveries in the Mid-Continent field. A method of extraction was devised, and two small experimental plants put in operation at Fort Worth, handling the product of the Petrolia field. These crude and elementary plants reduced the cost of producing helium from $1,700 to 10 cents a cubic foot.

The method employed, as described by Doctor Rogers, is to cool the gas to –328 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point all other constituents of natural gas become liquefied, while helium remains a gas. The natural gas is put under a very high pressure and then refrigerated, and when allowed to expand it becomes so cold that all its constituents, except helium, become liquefied. Doctor Rogers explains the principle by which these low temperatures are attained is one known to every motorist who is unfortunate enough to have to pump up his own tires. “When air is compressed in a tire it becomes hot; if the tire is allowed to cool to ordinary temperature and the valve is then opened, and the air allowed to escape, it becomes cool.”

Apparently a simple process, and yet Doctor Rogers says another method is being tried, in a third experimental station opened within the Petrolia field itself, which will lower the cost of production considerably under 10 cents a cubic foot. After devising its process of extraction and building its first two plants, the United States made its first shipment of 150,000 feet of helium, compressed in steel tanks, to Europe, shortly before the armistice was signed.

The old Dexter field is now extinct, and the other fields are much weaker than they were a few years ago, but still Doctor Rogers believes the United States can produce enough helium to keep lighter-than-air machines among the clouds for many years.

The gas is found at comparatively shallow levels, the lowest supply known, that of the Petrolia field, being sixteen hundred feet, while it was found at five hundred feet in the Dexter field, and in the Augusta and Eldorado fields it occurs at from six hundred to twelve hundred feet.

First Found In the Sun.

Its use renders balloons and dirigibles immune to incendiary bullets, and frees them from the danger of sparks from their motors igniting the gas with which they are filled, a danger to which they are constantly exposed when filled with hydrogen. With the great envelopes filled with helium, it also is possible to place the under carriage, containing the motors, much nearer the bag, and mount machine guns on top of the machine.

Helium was first discovered by means of the spectroscope in 1868 as one of the gases surrounding the sun. But it was not until 1895 that it was actually found on the earth, when it was obtained by treating the heavy black mineral uranite with an acid. A few years later it was found to be a part of the atmosphere, but here it is in such infinitesimal quantities that it could be extracted about as profitably as gold from the water of the ocean.

Believes Gas Comes from Radium.

Nothing is known of its origin, but Doctor Rogers believes it results from the decomposition of radium contained in the rocks of the earth's crust. In defense of his theory he says:

“Radium is ordinarily considered one of the chemical elements, but its discovery upset all the old notions about the permanency and indivisibility of the elements; for the extraordinary properties of radium are due to the fact that it is continually breaking down, at a slow but constant rate, into other substances.

“One of these substances is a gas called radium emanation, and this in turn breaks down into another body, called Radium A, and so on through a whole chain of similar substances until it finally becomes the unromantic element which we call lead.

“This is only half the story, however, for when radium breaks down into the emanation, the other substance formed is helium, and as each one of the other radio-elements disintegrates it also generates helium.

“As the world's total output of refined and purified radium amounts to only four or five ounces, valued at over 3 million dollars an ounce, It may well be asked how so rare and precious a substance can be called upon to explain the vast accumulations of helium in natural gas.

Radium Widely Distributed.

“As a matter of fact, however, although deposits of radium ore rich enough to mine are few, the element itself is widely disseminated through ordinary rocks.

“The amount of radium in a pound of rock or in a ton is utterly insignificant, but the total quantity in a cubic mile is enough to generate, according to a calculation of mine, about half a cubic foot of helium a year. This, too, sounds small; but multiply the cubic mile by a few thousand and the year by a few million and the total volume of helium begins to assume formidable proportions.

“There is really little doubt but that there is enough radium scattered through the earth's crust to account for all the helium we know of, though whether the helium actually did originate in this way is a matter concerning which scientists disagree.”—From The Kansas City Star.

Text and masthead from Oil and Gas News (26 Jun 1919), Vol. 5 No. 19, 3. (source)

See also:
  • 1 Jul - in 1925, the U.S. government created the Federal Helium Program and assumed control of all helium production in the nation.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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