A one-day conference on helium supplies was held on June 13 at the Royal Garden Hotel, London. The conference was called the “Global Helium Summit,” and was largely a useful update—via the 11 invited papers—of the ground covered by the March 2009 Cambridge Workshop on the Future of Helium. Based on the Workshop, Routledge published in 2012 “The Future of Helium as a Natural Resource” (eds. WJ Nuttall, RH Clarke and BA Glowacki). The 2013 conference was organized by gasworld Conferences under the chairmanship of John Raquet, and attracted 102 delegates from all over the world, largely senior management representatives of producers, distributors and users of helium.
Walter Nelson, Director of Helium Sourcing and Supply Chain, Air Products, opened the proceedings with his paper “Global Helium Supply,” which analyzed the reasons behind the current helium shortage. He concluded with a summary of suggested steps, including the need for global management of a finite resource, investment to improve helium separation from natural gases, and conservation at the point of use via recovery and recycling.
An illuminating paper by Nick Haines, Head of Global Helium Source Development, Linde Gas, provided an up-to-date picture of the proposed new US Helium Stewardship Act, of which only half of phase A, namely the presentation of a bill by the House of Representatives on April 26, had been achieved. A second but differing version of the bill by the Senate has been published since the Summit conference. The two bills now have to be combined by conference in phase B to make a single agreed-upon bill to go forward into phase C, for signature by the President and enactment. It is hoped that all these procedures can be finished before completion of the federal debt repayment from the sale of some of the remaining conserved helium, when the 1996 Helium Act is scheduled to cease and the Bureau of Land Management will stop operating.
The proposed new act does not provide for the export of any helium. Furthermore, the sale of crude helium to US refiners may cease by 2020, after which the US will become an importer of helium in competition with all non-US users. The outcome in solving the helium problem is therefore uncertain for everyone and a subject of serious concern.
Gerard Tan, Director, Department of Helium and Rare Gases, Air Liquide, gave a graphic account of the development of helium production in Qatar.
No. 1 liquefier was started in 2005 with the aim of delivering 0.6 Bcf/year, while No. 2 was started in 2010 with the aim of producing 1.3 Bcf/year. Future plans include a further
liquefaction plant to come on stream by 2020. When production approaches full capacity, the Qatar output should therefore be able to relieve the present helium shortage.
Phil Kornbluth, Senior Vice President, Global Gases, described the history of the helium market together with projections, in the short term up to 2020, and the medium term, up to 2030. He was optimistic that with Qatar 2 and Algeria’s Skikda expansion, the current global shortage should start to be relieved in 2014. Beyond 2020, he envisaged BLM production in the US will be phased out, while Russia’s Gazprom plans could emerge as the world’s leading helium producer.
Martin Woodhouse, Export Sales Director, Cryo Diffusion, described the design of the large liquid helium containers for the Qatar liquid production, and the techniques Cryo Diffusion uses to reduce boiloff.
M’hamed Lakrimi, Principal Engineer, Siemens Magnet Technology, described how MRI has expanded to create 30 percent of the world demand for liquid helium; and how the development of cryocoolers operating as helium re-condensers had reduced the helium demand significantly.
Didier Lebout, Director of Strategy and Development, Gazprom, de-scribed some impressive plans to bring helium in the Kovykia and Chayanda gas fields to market before the end of the decade. These fields will supply gas to India and China and some gas will be exported as LNG. The scale of these operations means that Gazprom could supply the world with helium, so it is possible that a proportion of the crude helium produced will be recompressed into storage underground.
Richard Clarke, Independent Consultant, 4He Solutions, gave a thought-provoking paper on “Unconventional Helium,” in which he discussed 10 sources for helium as alternatives to the standard and LNG tail-gas sources. He estimated that, taken together, these sources could be used to meet nearly a quarter of world demand, and many of them could operate after conventional natural gas runs out. The most intriguing question is whether the helium that is present in southern European gas supplies could be harnessed.
Finally Peter Ward, Chairman, Airships Association, gave an update on proposals for constructing and operating hybrid airships, provided there is adequate helium lifting gas in the market. This is poignant because, since the conference, Google has announced ambitious plans to bring the internet to remote areas via a fleet of helium balloons.
In summary, outside the US the current main sources of helium are 0.15 Bcf/year from Australia, 0.4 Bcf/year from Algeria, 0.15 Bcf/year from Poland, and 1.7 Bcf/year from Qatar 1 and 2. Together, this is not enough to satisfy non-US world demand.
The only possible good news, but in the medium term, was the proposal by Gazprom to build a separation, refining and liquefaction plant to produce the giant figure of 7 Bcf/year of helium from East Siberia in the 2020s. The technical problems of transporting Siberian helium thousands of kilometers to the port of Vladivostok are considerable, and the estimated time for building the necessary infrastructure was greeted with some surprise. In addition, the lack of a ”flywheel” (flexible output) plan for storage creates an instability in supply which could seriously affect worldwide users. This requires prioritization by the Russians.