What do party balloons, MRI machines and rocket fuel have in common? Helium is a crucial ingredient for each.
There’s growing optimism in Saskatchewan that exploration and production of the ultra light gas could increase here, even more than it has already. The province issued 59 helium leases in 2016; it didn’t issue any the year before.
“The potential is here, definitely,” said Melinda Yurkowski, a geologist with the Saskatchewan Geological Survey.
Had it not been for an enormous discovery of helium – 54 billion cubic feet, or seven times the current global consumption – in Tanzania in 2016, helium exploration in this province may have experienced a significant rush. That’s because helium supplies around the world were said to be in steady decline.
But helium has some maturing to do if it wants to catch up to the marquee performers in the Saskatchewan resource economy.
Oil, potash and uranium have long been highly sought after commodities. Helium is now considered a marketable product, though it’s future on the trading front is relatively unknown.
Explorers from across Canada and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom have expressed interest in Saskatchewan’s glut of helium. With the world using approximately eight billion cubic feet of helium every year, there’s a window of opportunity in which Saskatchewan can manoeuver.
Whether helium is the next big star for the province’s economy remains to be seen. Yurkowski sees that market gaining momentum. However, she stopped short of predicting an all-out boom, unless, of course, the business of inflating birthday balloons suddenly takes off.
“There’s a lot more exploration (of helium) now than there was five years ago, but it’s still in its infancy,” she explained. “I can’t really say where it’s going to lead. It really depends on the quality of the deposits that the explorations are going to find.”
Most of the world’s helium comes from natural gas, where it can exist in very small quantities. A good source will be roughly three per cent helium, but more often helium hovers between 0.1 per cent and 0.5 per cent.
Saskatchewan’s helium supply is found in the Precambrian layer and trapped within rock that is nearly two billion years old. The exploration process is similar to that for oil and gas. A drilling rig is used to find the source and once it’s found the well is cased.
When it comes to producing helium, it needs to be separated from the other gases that are present within the well. And because helium has a lower boiling point than other gases, it is extracted by slowly lowering its temperature. As the temperature decreases, other gases are released from the solution. What remains is helium, though it has to be purified further if you want to develop a medical grade helium.
Weil Group Resources, a helium processing firm, last year enlivened a couple of dormant natural gas wells that were used the 1960s and ‘70s near Mankota, approximately 150 kilometres south of Swift Current. Inert gas was present in these wells and helium was found. The facility has the capacity to produce 40 million cubic feet of helium a year — a fraction of the estimated six billion cubic feet the world uses annually.
In addition to these two wells, a third producing well in Saskatchewan is found near Wilhelm – slightly north of Swift Current. Other wells have been drilled near Battle Creek near the Alberta border and Simmie, which is slightly southeast from Gull Lake.
Saskatchewan has been home to helium exploration as early as the 1930s. As some would call it, luck played a role in the original discovery of helium in Saskatchewan. Explorationists learned of helium while drilling for oil and gas in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
During routine oil and gas exploration in the southwest corner of the province, drilling into the Precambrid formation resulted in the discovery of helium in the gas.
Though helium is not a by-product of oil and gas, it is commonly produced as primary product in Saskatchewan.
The discovery of the helium resulted in steady production for the majority of those two decades. However, when the price of helium dropped, well producers quietly shut the doors and walked away. Now, with price in helium rising, these old wells have been rediscovered.
On its website, Helium One says, “the global helium market is expected to exceed $6 billion in 2016. The price of bulk liquid helium has risen more than 100 per cent in the last 10 years.”
Canada has the fifth-largest helium resource in the world, behind the U.S., Qatar, Algeria and Russia.
Of course, helium’s most popular link is through party balloons and when inhaled allow a person’s voice to reach much higher octaves. Because it’s a lifting gas, it was sought after during World War I thanks to its ability to put blimps in flight.
But helium also serves many valuable uses in the science and technology industry. One of the big uses right now is for a cooling gas for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Because helium is a small molecule and not reactive, you can use it in the manufacturing of semi conductor chips and fibre optic cables, as well as for welding projects and in rocket fuel.
What effect further helium production in Saskatchewan would have on the economy is unknown. But the opportunity is there should additional processing groups make the move here.
“I’m really hoping someone will take a look at that and say that we need to start seeing helium here, here and here,” Yurkowski said. “But that’s all dependent on the exploration and the developers. But I know there’s a lot of potential here for further helium production.”