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Helium – Child of the Sun
Reprinted with Publisher’s Permission
Chapter 2 Science Finds the Golden Ray
Considering helium’s ever-increasing usefulness and importance, one might well ask, (1) Just what is helium? (2) How did it get its name? (3) When and by whom was it discovered? and (4) How is it obtained?
Science made great strides in the nineteenth century, but even by the middle of the period little was known about the makeup of our sun. The spectroscope changed all of that. Every schoolboy knows that, if sunlight entering a room is caused to pass through a glass prism or even a broken piece of glass, a spot of the rainbow colors can be produced on the wall or floor. That piece of glass or prism acts as a simple spectroscope.
Sir Isaac Newton discovered the principle of the spectroscope three hundred years ago, but it took two hundred years to develop it into a practical instrument, one capable of analyzing the light of incandescent vapors to determine the elements of which they are composed.
Astronomers since 1842 had been intrigued by what seemed to be flames issuing from the sun. Visible only at the time of an eclipse, the flames appeared to extend for thousands of miles beyond the surface of the sun (see Plate III). It was hoped that the spectroscope might throw some light on these great “pillars of fire” and possibly identify some terrestrial elements in the solar vapors.
Interested scientists patiently awaited the next total eclipse, which was predicted for August 18, 1868, with the best observation point being Guntoor, India. However, one British amateur astronomer, Norman Lockyer (later Sir Norman Lockyer), became impatient while awaiting an eclipse, and he designed a spectroscope with which he hoped to conduct studies of the solar flames in broad daylight. Except for some unfortunate delays in the manufacture and delivery of a spectroscope to his specifications, Lockyer might have obtained a two-year jump on other solar observers. Lockyer’s spectroscope was not ready for use until the late summer of 1868.
Thus it was that Lockyer was using his new instrument to study the sun in broad daylight in London at the same time a French astronomer, Pierre Janssen, was observing the eclipse of the sun at Guntoor, India. The reports of the two experimenters reached the French Academy of Science within minutes of each other. Both stated that the chromosphere of the sun consisted of incandescent vapors, that the spectrum was not a continuous one but made of a series of bright lines of various colors. Each knew that such lines were the hallmarks of certain gaseous elements. Lockyer went a step further. He noticed a bright yellow line in his spectroscope which he had never seen before, so he said there was an element in the sun not found on earth. Later he gave it the name “helium” from the Greek word for the sun, helious. However, it was 27 years before that same yellow line was observed in a spectroscope in an analysis of an earthly substance.
It seems strange that near the close of the nineteenth century there was so little known about the air we breathe. In 1890, Lord Rayleigh, a noted scientist of the time, was busy in his London laboratory determining the density of the gases found in the air, among them oxygen and nitrogen. His Lordship knew that air contained approximately 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen. He could produce both gases chemically. However, when he compared the weights of equal volumes of nitrogen extracted from the air with nitrogen produced chemically, he found that they were not identical. The nitrogen from the air weighed more. He called upon the scientists of the world to help discover the reason.
William Ramsay, a distinguished professor (later Sir William Ramsay), working in his London laboratory (see Plate III), tackled the problem; and he subsequently discovered that nitrogen from the air contained a new element which he called argon. Ramsay then became interested in determining the physical properties of the new gas and whether it would combine with other substances. His search for new sources of argon led to the discovery of helium on earth in 1895, 27 years after Lockyer had reported helium in the spectrum of the sun.
The technique used by Ramsay was developed by Dr. William F. Hillebrand of the U.S. Geological Survey and was described by him in U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 78, 1891. Experimenting with uraninite, a uranium material, at his laboratory in Washington, D.C., he obtained an inert gas when the material was heated with an acid. Later, the gas was placed in a tube and excited with an electric current. The light was examined with a spectroscope. The gas undoubtedly contained helium, but because it also contained some nitrogen which Hillebrand failed to remove completely, the helium spectrum was obscured – and Hillebrand missed the discovery of helium on earth by the slimmest of margins.
Ramsay was more fortunate. He learned of the inert gas that Hillebrand had obtained and hoped it might contain argon. He wrote to Hillebrand requesting a sample of uraninite. While waiting for it, he decided to try a local source and purchased about one gram of cleveite (another uranium-containing mineral), for which he paid three shillings and sixpence. Using the Hillibrand technique, he purified the gas evolved and examined it spectroscopically. The spectrum was not that of argon or any other material with which he was familiar, so he gave it the temporary name “crypton.” He sent a tube containing the gas to Sir William Crookes, a noted spetroscopist at the time, for further study. Back came the report, “Crypton is helium, come and see it.”
Thus it was that the discovery of earthly helium was announced through the French Academy of Science, March 26, 1895, and Ramsay’s three shillings sixpence purchase of cleveite sparked the scientific curiosity that was to grow into our government’s multimillion-dollar helium industry. However, another 26 years would elapse before any commercial use would be made of it.
Ramsay, a true scientist, was not content to rest on his laurels. He attempted to fit the two new elements, helium and argon, into the pattern of elements known at that time. According to the systematic grouping of the elements, called the periodic table, there should be at least five inert gases; and Ramsay and his coworker, Morris Travers, found the other three a couple of years later – giving them Greek names: neon, the new one; krypton, the hidden one; and zenon, the stranger.
After the discovery of helium on earth, a number of scientists started investigations hoping to bask in the helium limelight. H. Kamerlingh Onnes, a world-renowned scientist of Leiden, Holland, determined many of its properties, and in 1908 was the first to liquefy it. Soon, much was known about the colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. That it was an inert element and could not be made nor caused to combine with other substances was accepted soon after its discovery. Most gases become cool upon being expanded; helium, however, becomes hot. One thousand cubic feet of helium at normal temperature and pressure weighs 10.54 pounds. Since air under similar conditions weighs 76.36 pounds, 1,000 cubic feet of helium will lift 65.82 pounds in air. Helium is less soluble in water than any other gas. Helium will flow through a hole faster and transmit sound at a higher velocity than all other gases except hydrogen. It is the most difficult gas to liquefy. Neon is the only gas that conducts electricity better.
Several scientists started an intensive search for new sources of helium. It was found to exist in the atmosphere as one part in 185,000 parts of air. Ramsay and Travers, together with Rayleigh and other scientists, found various amounts of helium in such minerals as cleveite, fergusonite, samarskite, monazite, pitchblende, and thorianite. Mineral springs throughout the European continent came in for their share of investigation, as did the fumarole gases of Europe. Many of the samples contained small amounts of helium; so small that helium itself remained a chemical curiosity for many years.
The excitement did not spread as far as the United States. At least there is little evidence of an immediate search for sources of the new element. This seems strange, because at the time fumarole gases were being investigated in Europe, natural gas had been known in this country for over a hundred years.
A burning spring on the banks of the Kanawha River, a few miles above the present city of Charleston, W. Va., was described by General George Washington in 1775: “The tract, of which 123 acres is moiety, was taken by General Andrew Lewis and myself for, and on account of, a bituminous spring which it contains, of so inflammable a nature as to burst forth as freely as spirits, and is nearly as difficult to extinguish.”
In 1821, a burning spring was discovered near Fredonia, N.Y. It resulted in the first use of natural gas in the United States. The gas seep was accidentally ignited, which caused the local inhabitants to drill a 27-foot well and pipe the gas through “pump logs” to several nearby houses.
In 1825, General Lafayette, who was visiting in this country, arrived at Fredonia by stagecoach and was put up at the old Taylor House, which he found brilliantly illuminated by gas in his honor, probably the first inn to use natural gas for any purpose.
By the turn of the century, natural gas had been discovered in 17 states. Its production was valued at 23.5 million dollars. Nevertheless, natural gas was a drug on the market. Companies and individuals were feverishly drilling for oil in 1903. No one had foreseen the present interstate network of natural gas transmission lines and the city distribution systems that were to make gas available to the general public. So it was that the people of Dexter, Kan., were filled with excitement when a well was started in search of oil just a short distance north of the end of Main Street. An oil well, they thought, would make Dexter the Pittsburgh of the West. Even if gas were discovered, they would get smelters, brick plants, glass plants, and other important industrial establishments in their little town. Their visions seemed certain of fulfillment when, while drilling at a depth of only 400 feet (according to the weekly Dexter Advocate of May 14, 1903), drillers for the Gas, Oil, and Development Company “opened up a howling gasser.” As the well blew in, roustabouts were dressing (heating and sharpening) a bit in a forge only a few feet away, and the crew was torn between the necessity to put out the fire in the forge to avoid igniting the gas and a desire to get the tools out of the hole before they became mudded fast. According to the report, the flow of gas was “enormous.” It was estimated as high as 9 million cubic feet per day. Officers of the drilling company lost no time traveling the 15 miles to the larger town of Winfield, where they disposed of many thousands of shares of stock. Preparations were made immediately to drill a second well.
While the drillers were attempting to obtain valves and fittings to cap the flow, the gas was permitted to blow freely through an 8 ¼-inch pipe for many days. No one seemed to object to the noise, and the roaring well was a real treat to the passengers of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, a scant 50 feet to the north. Conductors obligingly stopped the train in order that those aboard could hear and see the gasser. To add to the din, some of the townspeople rigged a large tin whistle which they could hold in the stream of the rushing gas. This added materially to the noise as well as to the excitement.
Even before the well was capped, however, an ugly rumor started on its rounds. In Dexter, it was said that the rumor was started by a jealous citizen of Winfield. In any event, it began to be whispered that, according to a reliable authority, the natural gas from the Dexter well would not burn.
Such talk could not be tolerated. So, to quell the idle gossip, the citizens of Dexter planned a celebration which would include a demonstration that the rumor was false. As befitting the event, arrangements were made for an all-day picnic and a public barbeque. In the daytime, there would be a parade led by a brass band. At dusk, the mayor would mount a platform built for the occasion and explain to the townspeople and guests from miles around how Dexter was destined to become the metropolis of the area. As a climax, the gas from the well would be ignited to form a huge torch, around which the people of Dexter and their friends might dance and celebrate their good fortune.
The picnic and the barbecue went as scheduled. Excitement was high as at last a flaming bale of hay was swung over a pipe from which gas from the well was roaring. To the consternation of everyone (except possibly a few citizens from Winfield) the flames from the bale of hay were extinguished. A second try ended with the same results. The gas could not be made to burn. In fact, the gas actually put out the fire; and when the flames died, the hopes and visions of the townspeople of Dexter died with them.
The story of the Dexter gas that would not burn came to the attention of the Kansas State Geologist, Erasmus Haworth, who obtained a sample for the chemistry department of the University of Kansas. There, Dr. David F. McFarland analyzed the gas and reported that it contained, among other things, “71 percent nitrogen and an inert residue of 12 percent’ (though nitrogen itself is quite inert). Since the scientific literature had been full of the discovery of the inert gas helium just eight years before, it is strange that Dr. McFarland did not carry his investigation one step further. Little did he realize that fame was right around the corner. However, in its fickle fashion, it chose to smile instead on a colleague in the chemistry department of the University of Kansas, Dr. H.P. Cady, who, two years later on December 7, 1905, found the Dexter gas to contain 1.84 percent helium – the first time that helium was discovered to be a constituent of natural gas in this country.
It is certain that if Cady and McFarland had realized what an important article of commerce helium produced from natural gas was destined to become, they would have attended the winter meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, December, 1905-January, 1906, to announce their discovery. Instead, the Society was informed by the head of the chemistry department of the University of Kansas, Dr. E. H. S. Bailey, and the world learned secondhand that helium had been found in the “wind” gas of Dexter.
The scientific interest in helium which followed its discovery in natural gas gave impetus to further research. During the next year, Cady and McFarland collaborated in analyzing some 44 gases, most of them from Kansas wells. The results were published first in the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science and later in the Journal of the American Chemical Society of September, 1907. In discussing the widespread occurrence of helium in the gases of Kansas, Dr. Cady spoke better than he knew when he said, “It assures the fact that helium is no longer a rare element, but a very common element, existing in goodly quantity for the uses that are yet to be found for it.” The Cady and McFarland publication of 1907 remained the sole source of information on the helium content of natural gas until the start of World War 1. Without the data it contained, the government’s experimental helium project of 1917 would have died on the vine.
Dr. Cady’s notebooks of the 1905-7 period are wonderful examples of the “do as I say and not as I do” philosophy. Cady used standard chemical laboratory note books, and his Scotch nature caused him to utilize books discarded by students who withdrew during the first weeks of the course. To overcome a few entries, obviously by the first owner, he would start at the back of the book and work forward, and he was not above breaking a few of his own rules for keeping records.
At the start of each semester, Cady would call attention to the printed instructions on the first few pages of the standard notebook. He would emphasize two statements: “the proper keeping of the laboratory notebook is almost of as great importance as the performance of the experiment,” and “before the experimental work is begun, enter the date.” There were other detailed instructions to be followed but the only ones Cady did not break in keeping his own books were those requiring the experimenter “to work quietly with no whistling or unnecessary noises.” Obviously, he did not subscribe to his own advice, for after establishing that the sample came from the lone Dexter well, his notebooks are entirely silent on the exact date the first sample of gas was obtained. No mention is made of who took the sample, how it was taken, how it was stored. That there was 1.84 percent helium in the sample, and that it was first analyzed on December 7, 1905, there can be no doubt (Fig. 1).
But regardless of how he kept his notebooks, the world is greatly indebted to Dr. Cady for having pointed the way. Today, more than a half century after his discovery, natural gas remains the only economical source of helium.
The origin of helium on earth remains an unresolved question. There is no theory which is universally accepted. Of the two most plausible, the first one says that all, or at least a part, of the helium existed when the earth was formed, and it has been trapped underground ever since. Doubters of this theory ask why the known helium occurrences are not more uniformly dispersed throughout the world
A more broadly accepted theory asserts that the helium was produced by the disintegration of radioactive elements – a process that is still going on today. Objections to this theory claim that the known quantities of the helium on earth are far too large to have been produced in this manner. There are other theories and other arguments; but in one respect, there is no debate. Regardless of its origin, a major part of the known resources of earthly helium now exists as a constituent of natural gases; and strangely enough, the analyses of several thousands of samples in the United States show about 90 percent of the helium is concentrated in a small area within 250 miles of Amarillo, Tex.
Credit; Seibel, C.W., (1968). Helium child of the sun. Lawrence/London, University Press of Kansas