Tuesday, December 28, 2021

"The Race to Find ‘Green’ Helium" (figure it out, make yourself a billionaire)

This is a pretty big deal and the truth of the matter is, the race is to find 'any' helium. Some links below.

From Wired, December 16: 

Helium is a critical—and finite—resource. The future of our most indispensable technologies depends on a new supply.

Deep within the grasslands of southwestern Tanzania, seven men were gathered on a gravel patch the size of a tennis court. They wore white helmets and yellow, oil-smudged overalls, giving the impression of melting popsicles in the night’s dry heat. Next to them was the reason they’d flown in from around the world: their drill rig, a 35-ton, 50-foot-high mast that pierced the sky. For three weeks, the drill had been drudging through layers of thick, gloopy clay, but now, at a depth of 1,800 feet, it had found an expanse of porous red sandstone and was picking up speed. While two men scrutinized the rig’s progress on a set of dials, the others gathered lengths of stainless steel pipe from a nearby storage trailer. Hazem Trigui, a scientist who worked the night shift, watched from the smoking area, puffing on a cigarette.
It was July 2021, the beginning of the drill team’s second month in the Rukwa Basin, a sparsely populated agricultural plain nearly the size of Fiji. The team wasn’t after gold or crude oil or natural gas; they were looking for helium, a noble gas being released in huge quantities by the ancient granitic rock beneath them. Helium is abundant—the second-most-abundant element in the universe—but on Earth it is rare. Because it is the smallest and the second-lightest element, it’s a master escape artist, slipping out of whatever container it’s in, even our atmosphere. Helium is also very useful. It has the lowest boiling point and freezing point of any other known substance. And unlike hydrogen, its lighter and more abundant neighbor on the periodic table, it doesn’t go boom at the slightest provocation. All these characteristics have made it a critical resource in much of the technology that modern society relies on, from the semiconductor chips in computers and mobile phones to fiber-optic cables, MRI scanners, and rockets. There is no space race or high-speed internet without it.
Helium forms within Earth’s crust through radioactive decay, a process so slow that on a human timescale it’s considered a finite resource. (A block of uranium the size of a candy bar would take roughly 500 million years to produce enough helium to fill a party balloon.) For more than a century, it has been mined as a minor byproduct of natural gas extraction. But in the decades to come, as the world moves away from hydrocarbons and demand for helium grows in step with the aerospace, computing, and medical industries, there’s a looming possibility of a major shortage.
The Rukwa Basin is one potentially significant new source of helium. Here, the helium is “green”—naturally mixed with nitrogen, which can be safely vented into the atmosphere. The future of a stable helium supply is likely to depend on non-hydrocarbon sources like this, and now there’s a race to find them.
The team of drillers had been sent by Helium One, a startup founded in 2015. Of the 30 or so companies exploring for helium deposits around the world, Helium One’s mission has the greatest potential to hit it big. That’s because the company believes the Rukwa Basin may be the site of one of the largest accumulations of helium the world has ever known—with a market value of as much as $50 billion, enough to satisfy global demand for around two decades. Helium exploration is such a nascent industry that there is no blueprint exploration strategy, so the chance of success is low, and the gas is especially hard to mine because of its containment problem. But the project has the potential to bring stability to the world’s helium supply and define how and where the world looks for helium deposits.
As the purr of the rig’s diesel engine reverberated around the drill site, Trigui returned to his mobile laboratory, a dusty portacabin filled with microscopes and rock samples. Checking the data on his computer, he saw something he’d been waiting for since his arrival in Rukwa: The gas spectrometer was detecting a spike in helium levels in the rock they were drilling through. This is what’s known as a “gas show.” Trigui kicked open the cabin door and walked over to the sump, where mud pumped up from the drill face was pooling. It was bubbling like a jacuzzi.
“It’s here,” he said to himself. “The helium is here!”
Trigui took a video of the bubbling mud on his phone and excitedly messaged his colleagues back at camp. Over another cigarette break, he chatted with the drill team; nobody had seen anything like this before. They believed they’d unearthed the world’s first major deposit of “green” helium, and the first sizable helium deposit at all since 1967.
The bubbles continued to surface until 2 am, as the drill bore down another 30 feet. Then, suddenly, it lost all torque. The engine changed tone from a low drone to a high-pitched hum. The drillers looked on, bewildered.
The drill bit—a 6-inch-thick spiral of stainless steel and tungsten—is connected to the motor by a series of steel pipes that screw together to form what’s called a string. One of the joints in the string had sheared off. The team had no choice but to pull it out of the hole, leaving 300 feet of pipe, and the bit, still down there.
As the sun rose, David Minchin, Helium One’s CEO, awoke at camp. Not yet aware of the setback, he saw Trigui’s helium data on his computer screen and immediately thought, This will be the best day of my life. He threw on trousers, leapt out of his tent, and called out a cheerful “Good morning!” to Randy Donald, the drill site supervisor.
“You haven’t heard?” Donald said.
“Heard what?” Minchin replied.
“It’s not good. It’s really not good.”
In the 1950s, a geologist named T. C. James travelled extensively in what is now called Tanzania. As the chief mining geologist in the British-administered Geological Survey Department of Tanganyika, it was his job to develop a better understanding for the country’s geology by identifying such things as arable land and mineral deposits. On one of these trips, James sampled a gas-bearing thermal spring near the tiny village of Itumbula, in the Rukwa Basin, that had intrigued the local people for centuries.
James’ findings told him that these gases were extremely rich in helium, but he thought nothing of it. At the time, helium was readily available. The National Helium Reserve, a giant geological helium storage unit created by the United States government in 1925 by recovering helium from gas fields in the Texas Panhandle, was approaching its peak. With billions of cubic feet of crude helium stored, and demand for it still to mature, there was no reason to pursue the gas in a remote location lacking the basic infrastructure—roads, power, running water—required to develop a project.
By 1996, however, the reserve was in debt. Congress instructed its operator, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to halt production and offer for sale the entirety of the stockpile at a price that would recover the costs of developing it. The effect of this was to artificially depress market prices and financially disincentivize anyone from exploring for helium, so until recently it has only been found incidentally, by petroleum companies scouting rock formations for hydrocarbons. For decades, then, as much as 80 percent of the world’s helium has originated from only around 10 natural gas facilities in the United States, Qatar, and Algeria.
Today, the global supply chain for helium is fragile, and that makes the gas a volatile commodity, which in turn can hamper scientific research and industrial production. While I was writing this story, Algeria’s Skikda Plant and the National Helium Reserve temporarily dropped offline, shutting down around 25 percent of the global supply. Cliff Cain, president of a consultancy group for industrial gas, told me his clients were forced to suddenly scale back their manufacturing, and scientists had to delay research dependent on helium. In 2012, a more serious shortage famously forced Tokyo Disneyland to suspend the sale of their Mickey Mouse–shaped balloons. End users don’t have reserves to dip into, because helium is extremely difficult and expensive to store.
Next year, the BLM is expected to finally complete its sell-off of the National Helium Reserve. After that, prices are likely to soar and the US government will have to source helium from the private sector. (The other major source of helium in the US, ExxonMobil’s LaBarge field in Wyoming, may be vulnerable to environmental policy because the gas composition is 65 percent carbon dioxide.) Without new, large-scale sources of helium, it’s a probability that increasing global demand will rely on Qatar, whose antagonistic neighbors have previously blocked exports, and Russia, where new production is slowly coming online. In the short term, Russia’s production is likely to produce a temporary oversupply of helium—but when natural gas production winds down, demand for helium is sure to catch up. “We’re walking into a world where the West has no control over one of the most valuable strategic commodities,” Cain says.
The impending helium shortage has long been anticipated. Ten years ago, while BLM was running down the reserve, demand for helium was climbing sharply. The private producers Congress expected to be online were delayed or never appeared, and prices shot up. As it became possible to drill for helium profitably, an assortment of explorers, entrepreneurs, and wildcatters—those who drill exploratory wells outside of existing gas fields—sensed an opportunity to earn a buck....

Some previous posts: 

Qatar: Helium shortage looms
The helium shortage is always coming, to date we don't have many substitutes for the element, but the arrival of the crisis keeps getting delayed...

"Venting about the Helium Market"
We too have been enchanted by the light one, most recently in "News You Can Use: 'Learn How to Build a Nuclear Fusor'"....

We've been tracking the helium biz for a while.
Helium prices balloon as supplies run out
Every couple years we run a story similar to this. Because of the physics and chemistry helium is one of the few irreplaceable elements. But...and that's a big but...if you want to make the big money go for the isotope, Helium 3 rather than straight up He, you'll make a fortune in the electricity biz.

"... America’s Helium Crisis"

“Chances are you’ve heard little or nothing from your constituents about helium over the past 15 years,” 
-Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing at Air Products and Chemicals


"GE, Siemens Plead with Lawmakers to Preserve Federal Helium Reserve"

April 2013

Chemistry: Periodically, We Tell Element Jokes
Funnier than three helium atoms: HeHeHe.

Helium Problem Solved
The article says helium is derived from natural gas. This is incorrect. As one of the noble gases He doesn't react with much of anything so more correctly helium can be found in proximity to methane.

Pedantic much? Yeah, that was me.