Canada’s Largest Helium Purification Facility To Be Built in Southwest Saskatchewan

The largest helium purification operation in Canada will soon be located in Saskatchewan.

The provincial government on Thursday announced a new facility will be constructed near Battle Creek, along the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, by North American Helium (NAH). Construction is expected to begin in October, and the facility is expected to be running by July 2021.Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre said it will allow the province to scale helium production and export capacity. “Helium production in Saskatchewan is set to take off,” Eyre said. According to the province, Canada has the world’s fifth-largest helium resources, with significant underground reserves in Saskatchewan. Over the last five years, almost 20 wells have been drilled in the province, largely in the southwest. The Saskatchewan Geological Survey has been analyzing approximately 88,000 oil and gas wells across the southern half of the province to determine their viability, the province said. In part due to an increased global demand for helium, a supply shortage has led to prices rising more than 160 per cent over the past three years. Helium is used in everything from medical research to diagnostic testing, digital technologies, semiconductors, fibre optics, nuclear power facilities, rocket systems, welding and balloons. NAH chairman and CEO Nicholas Snyder said the company is lucky to operate “in a jurisdiction with a supportive regulatory structure, favourable geology for helium production and a skilled workforce.” According to the province, recent regulatory amendments include an expanded PST exemption for exploratory and downhole drilling activity. Saskatchewan has a “stable and highly competitive” 4.25 per cent royalty rate for helium, the province said. Cypress Hills MLA Doug Steele said the project is a great fit for an area of the province that “prides itself on resource development and economic growth.” The project has been approved through the environmental assessment process, according to the province. Snyder said the project shows that “reliable long-term production of helium can be created from non-hydrocarbon sources, which means a smaller environmental footprint while still benefiting from the expertise developed in Saskatchewan’s oil service industry.”

The province on May 28, 2020 announced a new helium facility will be constructed near Battle Creek, along the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, by North American Helium (NAH).

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Space Resources: The Broader Aspect

Space mining is back on the table. Yes, mining. Putting bucket-wheel excavators on the Moon and bringing back ores with rocket-propelled haulers and thousands of space-suited truckers, miners, and other people living and working in space. Some of them would be possibly brewing “Earthshine.” And the Americans are going to strip mine the whole Moon, hollow it out, and then move to someplace else. Americans will be ruining the Moon for their own profit, like they ruined the Earth. We have to stop them! Or if we can’t block their launch or landing sites, we must force them to share the benefits of space mining, and comply with regulations that would be beneficial for the whole world. We cannot allow their greed to ruin other celestial bodies, right?

But space resources are something more than simply chunks of metals floating in outer space. The ability to obtain, process, and utilize a given material or energy source means profit, but not in the direct way that it might be seen. In Situ Resource Utilization boils down mostly to the following phrase: if you possess the proper means, everything can be a useful resource. Water, and oxygen and hydrogen derived from it, has been discussed as propellant for space tugs and other vehicles for decades. But water rockets don’t make the same headlines as trillions of dollars’ worth of raw ore. Regolith, if properly fined, uniformed, and processed, will be a useful long-term resource for lunar settlements and robots. The fact of the matter is that obtaining mineral resources, volatiles, organics, hydrocarbons, and isotopes in outer space is not only a matter of profit, but of survival and sustainability. Astronauts and others will require nutrition, housing, life support, tools, and equipment. And even if they aren’t people but instead teleoperated or autonomous robots, they would require the means to prolong their “lifespan” by being provided with repairs, spares, consumables, and other maintenance. This requires a whole industrial ecosystem that would be mostly dependent on in situ resources. Robots extracting, transporting, building, and repairing. Other machines processing, manufacturing, and generating power. Perpetuation of such ventures, with space tugs, orbital yards, and factories, requires energies and materials and sufficiency. This whole network of object needs to be as “self-repairing” as possible. The use of extraterrestrial resources might provide us with different modes of production and an approach to self-sufficiency in outer space. Americans used to refer to outer space as the Final Frontier, using analogies to homesteading. However, the current state of international space law and other acts relating to space forbids claims of sovereignty by occupation and means of “working the land.” Nonetheless, people operating robots or living on the moon for some time will develop their new ideas of obtaining and using resources, with their own sort of life-hacks, knowhow, and inventions. There have been a lot of publications describing the use of said resources and what processes can be performed on orbit. NASA’s NTR Server is full of such studies, speculations, and plans. Chinese Earth-Moon economic zone papers on solar powered satellites, published by Chinese academicians, look very similar to those published before and during the early operation of the shuttle. Don’t call it plagiarism or re-writing one’s homework: if some designs look plausible and feasible, they will be pursued. If lunar telescopes, orbital tugs, and nuclear shuttles look like an idea worth pursuing, and the previous pursuer ran out of steam, why wouldn’t you pick up the idea, work on it, and even improve it?

Therefore, any new regulation for commercial utilization of celestial bodies (or, rather, certain categories of such) should include the following:

  • Safety and security of operations
  • Governance and reciprocal approach to authorization of space activities
  • Dispute resolution
  • A platform for information sharing for commercial, safety, and scientific use
  • A framework for processing, manufacturing, and construction using space objects with the use of obtained resources
  • Liability for damage caused by people and machines
  • The use of synthetic organisms within space objects or on the surface of a celestial body
  • Addressing the issues of extraterritorial intellectual property suits.
  • Recommendations for space debris removal, recycling, reuse, and protection of national heritage sites (space objects and their direct vicinity) on the surface, subsurface, atmosphere, or orbit of a celestial body.

The problem of benefit sharing gets a little murky here. Earth orbits are frequently recognized as “global commons,” but the Moon is a globe of its own. And extending the idea of global commons beyond the Earth-Moon system would be anti-Copernican, to say the least! Yet providing “non-mining” nations with capacity-building programs or cosponsored lease of industrial space objects (such as it is the case with some telecom satellites) would be a greater benefit to be shared than creating a “you-fly-and-I-don’t” tax and other forms of monetary benefit sharing. This notion of monetary benefit sharing stems from the simplistic understanding of space resources as “gold mines.” These are not gold mines: here one person’s overburden is another person’s shielding material. Of course, there is different value and use for different materials, yet creating taxes for space resource utilizers will cause more trouble than it will solve problems. Even if some spacefaring nations or their nationals find a way to dodge this tax or other form of compulsory monetary benefit sharing, the idea itself is very populist and will be a dangerous tool of international politics. It can be said, that the money made by “space miners” can be redistributed to help mitigate climate catastrophes and provide a better life for people in the developing world. If the saying about “not being able to eat money” has any truth to it, then we either need to think about solutions involving the use of space resources and outer space more generally (outside of the current use of climate monitoring), or else brace ourselves for new chapters in the history of corruption, ruined dreams, local activists silenced. and getting rich off helping the poor. Space resource utilization, be it out there or down here, should be mainly regulated by an intergovernmental agreement (IGA), such as the IGA for the International Space Station, if the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is no longer a proper platform to discuss the matter. State parties to the IGA would establish their own stations, platforms, vehicles, and other means of operation and create a reciprocal set of rules, rights and obligations. Some principles or ready templates have been proposed by the Outer Space Institute, The Moon Village Association, and The Hague Working Group, whose Building Blocks give a promise of balance as they neatly fit the parties to the Outer Space Treaty and address the concerns of states that are party to the Moon Agreement. The sooner the rules will be settled and agreed upon, the sooner we can move on to next regulations for the “poly-global” space economy. Obtaining resources is merely a tool, not the goal. Yet in order to understand the goal, one must overcome one’s mental gravity well.

Space resources are not just a potential source of profit for space companies, but essential to survival for settlements beyond Earth. (credit: Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development)

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Blue Star Helium (ASX:BNL) Reports 3BCF Prospective Helium Resource

  • Blue Star Helium (BNL) has received independent analysis results of its Galileo and Enterprise prospects, revealing an estimated three billion cubic feet (BCF) in helium resources
  • The figure, generated by oil and gas consultant Sproule, was derived using the probabilistic method, and is based on a 50 per cent likelihood contained resources will equal or exceed the estimate
  • Blue Star believes there’s a strong chance of development upon discovery if the prospects do prove as rich as suggested
  • In order to start drilling, Blue Star must undertake some permitting work, which is expected to be complete later this year
  • The first development well will cost around US$300,000 (around A$451,280), with a further US$100,000 (about A$150,430) to be spent to start production if the well is successful
  • The company says further exploration at the two prospects will be reliant on the results from the first well.
  • Blue Star Helium is trading grey today at 0.9 cents per share

Blue Star Helium (BNL) has received independent analysis results of its Galileo and Enterprise prospects, revealing an estimated three billion cubic feet (BCF) in helium resources. The figure, generated by oil and gas consultant Sproule, was derived using the probabilistic method, and is based on a 50 per cent likelihood contained resources will equal or exceed the estimate.

Promising prospects

More than two-thirds of the resources are contained at the Enterprise prospect, with the remainder at Galileo. Both prospects are situated in the Lyons Formation Helium Play, in Las Animas County, Colorado. While the 3 BCF figure is just a prospective resource evaluation and remains to be tested, the prospects show considerable promise at this point. Petrophysical and geochemical analysis of the area show strong signs of contained helium at both Enterprise and Galileo, and data seems to demonstrate the existence of a high-quality reservoir.

Next steps

Blue Star believes there’s a strong chance of development upon discovery if the prospects do prove as rich as suggested. The company is already in talks with providers to cost extraction equipment and transport arrangements.
If the company runs with the currently suggested model of renting equipment, the majority of the capex costs at startup would be drilling the wells. In order to start drilling, Blue Star must undertake some permitting work, which is expected to be complete later this year. At that point, the first development well is estimated to cost US$300,000 (around A$451,280). Further evaluation and testing costs would be incurred to make sure the first Enterprise well could work as a commercial producer. It’s estimated those costs would put a further US$100,000 (about A$150,430) on top of the drilling cost, meaning Blue Star has quite a cheap potential pathway to first helium. The company says further exploration at the two prospects will be reliant on the results from the first well. Blue Star Helium is trading grey today at 0.9 cents per share as at 2:35 pm AEST.

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Blue Star Helium: 3 Bcf Prospective Helium Resource

Blue Star Helium has a prospective helium resource of three billion cubic feet (Bcf) for its two prospects in Colorado, US, the Australian exploration company said today.

Global energy consulting firm Sproule calculated the resource estimate for Blue Star’s Enterprise and Galileo prospects as part of an independent prospective helium resource evaluation. The prospects are situated in the Lyons Formation Helium Play, which is proven in the area by the historical Model Dome field. Blue Star will drill one well at its Enterprise prospect as soon as it receives approval of the relevant permits, which the company expects to be later this year. To prepare for the prospect of drilling, Blue Star is currently preparing to stake the well location which will be followed by the drilling permit application and associated surface use agreements. Engineering estimates have confirmed the expected dry hole costs will be $300,000. Should the first well discover helium, Blue Star intends to conduct a log evaluation and well testing programme. If commercial production rates of helium are indicated during the well testing, the well may be completed as a producer. In this event, Blue Star said completion costs have been estimated at $100,000, which is additional to the dry hole cost. Blue Star Managing Director Joanne Kendrick said, “This is an outstanding result at our first two prospects in our portfolio. It gives us great confidence as we prepare for our initial drilling campaign later this year.”

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Here’s How We Could Mine The Moon for Rocket Fuel

The Artemis program is supposed to usher in a new age of lunar mining, especially for water ice. But how, exactly?

The moon is a treasure trove of valuable resources. Gold, platinum, and many rare earth metals await extraction to be used in next-generation electronics. Non-radioactive helium-3 could one day power nuclear fusion reactors. But there’s one resource in particular that has excited scientists, rocket engineers, space agency officials, industry entrepreneurs—virtually anyone with a vested interest in making spaceflight to distant worlds more affordable. It’s water. Why? If you split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then liquefy those constituents, you have rocket fuel. If you can stop at the moon’s orbit or a lunar base to refuel, you no longer need to bring all your propellant with you as you take off, making your spacecraft significantly lighter and cheaper to launch. That’s important because Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull necessitate use of tons of fuel per second when rockets launch. Creating a sustainable source of fuel in space could reduce the costs and hazards associated with heavy liftoffs. One NASA estimate suggests there might be 600 million metric tons of lunar ice to harvest, and other higher-end estimates say one billion metric tons is a possibility. In other words, if you could mine it effectively, the moon would become a cost-cutting interplanetary gas station for trips to Mars and elsewhere.

Show me the money

Everyone wants a piece of the action. The European Space Agency has a loose vision to build a “moon village” that would include mining operations. China’s Chang’e 5 lunar exploration and sample return mission is thought to be a precursor investigation to understanding more about lunar water content. India’s failed lunar rover mission last August was supposed to map water ice at the lunar south pole. The US has designs on lunar water too, of course. On May 15, NASA announced the Artemis Accords (PDF)—a proposed legal framework for mining on the moon, named after NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Artemis is the most important step toward establishing a permanent American presence on the moon. The tenets touch on issues that include emergency assistance services and interoperability of technology standards. But more importantly, the Artemis Accords allow the US to dictate the terms of lunar mining first, before other countries can. They also propose setting up neutral “safety zones” between different lunar bases to prevent interference and conflict between countries and companies. But what they can’t tell us is how we’ll actually access the moon’s water. There are plenty of obstacles. The cold temperatures and radiation could endanger humans and degrade sensitive equipment. It’s not ideal to have a large crew of human beings running these kinds of operations day in and day out, but it’s equally unclear how much can be delegated to autonomous systems. Lunar soil itself—coarse and jagged, and prone to sticking to everything—could wreck machinery and pose safety issues to workers in spacesuits. Although we’ve shown the feasibility of refueling satellites in orbit, doing the same thing for large spacecraft on the moon or in lunar orbit will create its own set of challenges thanks to microgravity and regolith, the layer of loose material covering the lunar bedrock. And we would still need to have astronauts living semi-permanently on the moon’s surface. NASA’s ambitious Artemis plans call for building a lunar base by 2028 (along with a lunar space station called Gateway that’s supposed to facilitate trips beyond the moon), but that’s a mere four years after we (are supposed to) return to the moon. This vision is still closer to science fiction than reality.

Extract and purify

Even assuming these obstacles are surmountable, how easy would it be to actually extract water once we were there? First, lunar water isn’t that easy to access. “It’s not like an ice sheet or a slab of ice like a glacier,” says Julie Stopar, a visiting scientist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute. Water on the moon is in the form of tiny ice grains mixed into the soil, mostly located in the permanently shadowed regions within craters near the poles. Here, temperatures of 40 K (-233.15 °C) keep the water ice stable and undisturbed. The grains are heavily mixed with complex organics and metals. In 2009, NASA’s LCROSS mission shot a rocket into the moon to fling plumes of moon rock into the air. An analysis of this airborne material found it was only 5.6% water by weight. That data, which at 10 years old is still the most recent direct analysis of lunar soil water content we have, suggests even if water ice can be separated from the lunar soil, it’s still very impure and would require aggressive purification to rid it of contaminants that would ruin any fuel made from it. Last year George Sowers, an engineer of space architectures at the Colorado School of Mines, and more than a dozen other scientists wrote a paper published in the journal Reach that described one proposed method for processing lunar water ice. Large towers with concave mirrors on the top would be erected and installed around the crater edges to reflect sunlight down into permanently shadowed regions. This energy would heat the lunar soil up to 220 K (-53.15 °C), warm enough to get the water ice to sublimate into vapor. A tent cover over the soil (transparent, so the redirected sunlight could hit the surface) would trap and capture this water vapor, which would be moved into large aluminum units where it would freeze back into ice. Haulers (maybe robotic, or maybe driven by astronauts) would drive the ice out to a facility where it could be purified. Here, the water would be split into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis and finally liquefied so the constituents could be used as rocket propellant. Trans Astronautica Corporation, based in California, wants to do something similar. It has sketched out plans for tall towers with solar panels to harness energy and bring it down to the craters, and then use radio frequency, microwave, and infrared radiation to sublimate the water ice. “None of those steps is exotic,” says Sowers. They exist as industrial-scale applications on Earth. The low gravity should make it easier to build and move materials around. However, these concepts do require astronauts on the ground to run certain functions, and keeping those people safe and comfortable and housed would require an extraordinary amount of resources and energy. (OffWorld, a space robotics company with offices in California and Luxembourg, says it wants to make water ice mining a totally autonomous process, run by a swarm of AI-powered robots, but that is ambitious to say the least.) In fact, none of these techniques or plans are anywhere near ready yet. Although we’ve demonstrated the ability to operate rovers and landers on the moon to withstand cold temperatures and radiation, we don’t know if huge infrastructure can last just as long. Each region of the moon sits in darkness for two weeks of the month (and longer if we’re talking about the permanently shadowed parts of craters), and it’s not easy to just wake a piece of technology from a 40 K slumber. According to Phil Metzger, a space technologist at the University of Central Florida and a coauthor of the Reach paper, the biggest technical limitation to water ice mining on the moon—the only issue that “keeps us up at night”—is the purification process. And because we don’t have actual lunar samples to regularly test these technologies with, it’s hard to develop membranes to filter out contaminants specific to the moon. Impurities could make the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fuel unusable—or worse, unstable and explosive. Water harvesting on the moon will have a high failure rate for years, Metzger predicts. “I don’t think the technologies that people are designing and conceiving of today are going to just work perfectly on the moon,” he says. “But I do believe there will be a lot of industrial activity on the moon within several decades,” he adds. “And when we reach that point, people are going to look back and say ‘Oh, it should have been obvious. All the pieces were in place.’”

Concept art for lunar water ice extraction. COURTESY GEORGE SOWERS

In this proposed design, mirrors use sunlight to heat the water ice in the lunar soil. The water vapor is transferred into tanks on the side. COURTESY GEORGE SOWERS

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