The so-called ‘noble’ or ‘inert’ gases such as helium, argon, neon, xenon, and krypton frequently tend to be confined to niche markets. But whereas their stable structure renders them mostly unreactive in many chemical reactions, rare gases are anything but inert in our economies. To wit, helium, the second most abundant element in the universe behind only hydrogen, is a vital resource with several modern-day applications in microchip manufacture, hybrid air vehicles, helium-filled hard drives, and space exploration among others.
Helium has traditionally been used in lighter-than-air balloons thanks to the gas being 7x lighter than air and far less reactive than hydrogen, the lightest element in the universe. Unfortunately, hydrogen’s role in the 1937 Hindenburg disaster cast a dark shadow over its potential that the gas has been unable to overcome in many decades--until now.
Helium has simply been ignored.
Here on our planet, helium is in a much shorter supply, at only 5.2 ppm by volume in the atmosphere making it the second most rare freely-occurring gas in our atmosphere.
Helium is mostly produced from natural gas thanks to higher-than-average concentrations in several natural gas locations in the United States.
Global Helium Applications
Most terrestrial helium on our planet is the result of natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements. However, a Canadian company by the name of Desert Mountain Energy Corp. (TSX-V: DME, OTCQX: DMEHF, Forum) plans to explore for helium in east-central Arizona near Holbrook, the so-called “the Saudi Arabia of helium’’ one of the world’s richest fields.
However, as demand has increased, companies have been aggressively ramping up helium exploration in the U.S--including northern Arizona.
There are now only 14 plants in the world that refine helium.
Dwindling helium supply
Helium’s unique properties make it an essential component in cryogenics, shielding, leak detection, heat transfer, and analytical and lifting applications. At a melting point of -261.1°C (-429°F), helium has the lowest melting point of any element, meaning there’s no substitute for the gas where ultra-low temperatures are required. This makes helium indispensable in the study of super-cold conditions. Helium is also a critical component in the manufacturing process, such as MRIs and semiconductor chip manufacturing.
Explosive growth in the semiconductor and healthcare industries, as well as space and quantum computing, has been increasing global demand in helium.
In the United States, helium is extracted from wells in Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Texas is home to the Federal Helium Reserve. The US is the world’s largest helium producer, accounting for roughly 40% of the global supply.
Unfortunately, the US National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas-- the world’s single largest source of helium over the past 70 years--is nearly exhausted with no replacements in sight.
As is the case with other commodities, over the years, helium has been experiencing alternating boom and bust cycles.
However, the long-term outlook is mostly bullish, with the global helium market expected to grow from $10.6 billion in 2019 to $15.73 billion by 2023, good for 11% CAGR.
The main focus right now is the production of non-hydrocarbon helium gas as well as from gas fields with helium contents lower than 0.6%. A total of five fields now produce lift-grade, gaseous Grade 5.0, or liquid helium from non-hydrocarbon sources in the UK and Canada.
Major helium players in the global market are:
- Air Liquid
- Messer Group
- Air Products
- Gulf Cryo
- Matheson Tri-Gas
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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