USA. In 1965, helium party balloons were only available to the rich and famous, and a technology known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which requires liquid helium to be able to take pictures inside our bodies, was still just a theory in scientists' minds.

In October of that year, a plant capable of producing liquid helium in larger quantities than ever before, came online in Otis, Kansas, US, and helped support a cultural and scientific revolution.

BOC will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of its Otis plant this month by hosting a series of events for employees and invited guests.

The Otis plant was a trailblazer for its time, the culmination of work BOC had done to develop the market for helium. Before then, the production and distribution of helium was mostly controlled by the U.S. government, which used it to hoist weather and military observation balloons. But legislative changes in the early 1960s paved the way for private industry to enter the helium business.

BOC, which had then been the sole distributor of government produced helium, was the first to be able to meet customer needs in such weighty areas as low-temperature physics research and also in lighter ones, such as the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day parade.

“Because we had developed what limited market there was in helium before the early 1960s, we saw a good future for helium. BOC became the leader in helium sourcing and supply, a position that continues to this day,” said Phil Kornbluth, vice president, helium and rare gases, BOC.

In 1965, total worldwide demand for helium was less than what BOC’s Otis plant now produces in one year. Since then, global demand for helium has grown rapidly as manufacturers realised helium’s unique properties could aid in a wide range of applications. Demand came from such applications as superconductivity research, which fuelled the development of MRI; from welding, where helium is used as a shielding gas; and from semiconductor and optical fiber production. The U.S. government remains a major consumer, using helium extensively in the space and defense industries.

The Otis plant was originally built by an independent company called Kansas Refined Helium, which contracted to sell its entire output to BOC (then Airco). After years of purchasing its entire output, BOC acquired the Otis plant in 1977. It has been the backbone of BOC’s global helium business ever since.

Today, BOC’s Otis plant, one of the world’s largest, refines and produces more helium in one month than it did in the first year it began operating. Otis’ current production capacity represents some 16 per cent of the world’s current helium demand.