The search for new sources of helium is of paramount importance as a combination of declining production and increasing demand have made helium prices soar. This follows a century in which the United States had a near monopoly on helium reserves and U.S. production met global demand. Although most of the helium production story has taken place in the United States, there are other nations that have produced and are producing helium. Details of production and exploration in these regions are scant, however.
Helium Beyond the United States
In a 2014 issue of the journal “Minerals,” New Zealanders Steve Mohr and James Ward published “Helium Production and Possible Projections,” in which they attempted to build the history of helium production for countries other than the United States. The data they assembled comes from documents published by the U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Resources Program, which enabled them to collate the production from countries other than the United States. Helium has been produced in Canada, France, Poland, Algeria, Qatar, Russia and Australia, of which Algeria, Qatar and Russia have been the most significant. Also in 2014, a paper by V.P. Yakutseni of the All Russia Petroleum Research Exploration Institute entitled, “World Helium Resources and the Perspectives of Helium Industry Development,” reviewed helium occurrences, reserves and production and provided specific details of fields in Russia, Algeria and Poland. For Russia, most of the gases produced to date have been low in helium (0.1-0.25 percent in western Russia), and gases from the Caspian area, Arctic territories and western Siberia have been very low in helium ( less than 0.03 percent). However, discoveries made in the latter half of the 20th century in eastern Siberia contain moderate amounts of helium (0.2-0.6 percent). The fields include the Kovykta Field that is reported to have the unusual property of containing only 1.5 percent nitrogen but 0.26-0.28 percent helium. The production of helium in Algeria is from the giant Hassi R’Mel gas field, reported to have up to 0.19 percent helium, according to a 2014 report by independent consultant Richard H. Clarke, “The Global Helium Supply.” Helium has been extracted from the liquefied natural gas process since 1995 with at least two new fields being added this decade with expected reserves of around 37 million cubic meters. The world’s largest gas field is North Field in Qatar and its extension into the Iranian South Pars within the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Field start-up was in 1997 and the gas is exported as LNG. The cryogenic process used to liquefy the gas also gives an opportunity for the extraction of helium, which in the case of North Field is only present at 0.04 percent. Elsewhere, such a low concentration would not be considered economically viable, but as a secondary product to LNG production, helium extraction is commercially feasible.
Future Market Share
Mohr and Ward and Yakutseni made projections of likely future production based upon the summed reserve estimates from known producing countries plus China. Their projections are quite different.