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.
Mohr and Ward anticipate that the United States will continue to be dominant in the market throughout the 21st century, albeit with a reduced share of the market at around 30-40 percent.
Yakutseni states that the U.S. helium reserves are essentially at an end and that Russia will dominate the market based upon the reserves estimates for the collection of fields in Eastern Siberia at 16 billion cubic meters. These, together with the projected yet-to-find helium reserves from Eastern Siberia of 3,035 billion cubic meters, will allow Russia to dominate the market for decades to come.
An Exploration Methodology for Helium
The authors of this article participated in the most recent significant discovery of helium, and it was outside any of the countries considered by Mohr and Ward or Yakutseni. Working with start-up company, Helium One, natural gas seeps were sampled by Pete Barry in Tanzania’s Western and Eastern rift arms of the East African Rift System in December 2015. By mid-2016, the analysis of the gas composition was finalized. The seeps were primarily nitrogen-helium mixtures with helium concentrations in the Eastern rift arm as high as 10 percent. As Diveena Danabalan reports in her 2017 doctoral thesis, “Helium: Exploration Methodology for a Strategic Resource,” hydrocarbons were essentially absent.
The initiative to explore for helium in East Africa’s Rift Valley had a dual origin. Back in 2012, Jon Gluyas of Durham University in the UK and Chris Ballentine, then with Manchester University, now with Oxford University in the UK, had begun a research program designed to develop an exploration strategy for helium based upon understanding the source of helium, “maturation” of the source rock, primary migration of helium from the source rock, secondary migration of the helium to the trap and helium accumulation processes. In 1999, Gluyas had found a report on an Asian gas-field with high helium concentrations and recognizing its value, tried to have the helium separated from the vent gases, but without success. Ballentine had a long history of research on the geochemistry of helium, having begun with his doctoral topic on the helium-rich Panonnian Basin of Hungary.
Gluyas and Ballentine met just 12 hours before giving a pitch to Statoil (now Equinor). After a 30-minute presentation and 60 minutes of questions, Statoil were on board. They provided the funding and Diveena Danabalan was appointed as a doctoral research student.
One of the primary objectives of Danabalan’s research was to sample and analyze all of the gases in Statoil’s portfolio. Unfortunately, we found no significant helium occurrences in their portfolio. We had to look elsewhere. Danabalan set up a website, the content of which promoted her doctoral research, while Gluyas and Ballentine trawled through their colleagues and associates in the petroleum industry. It was a desperate search – 18 months of the doctoral research time ticked by and all we had to show was a comprehensive literature search. It did, however, ensure that we put serious effort into developing an exploration strategy – after all, we may well have to use that strategy in earnest to find any helium to analyze!
Then, two leads bore fruit. We got a chance to sample a producing field we knew to be helium rich in south Asia. The sampling instrumentation was shipped out, air tickets and visas obtained, only for a security issue to thwart us at the last moment. On the other side of the world, U.S. midwest helium producers Bo Sears and Scott Sears had seen Danabalan’s website and invited her to come out and sample their wells. At last, we could begin to test our ideas on the mechanisms of helium generation, migration and entrapment. The first results from analysis of the gases sampled by Danabalan in the United States were published as an abstract for a talk at a Goldschmidt conference. Shortly thereafter, one of our team, Pete Barry got a call.
The second part of our story starts back in the 1950s. The Geological Survey of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) published a series of annual reports, or “records,” as they were known. Among these records by T.C. James is a paper on thermal springs in Tanganyika. James was a very well-respected geologist. He had already published on metamorphic rocks of Western Tanganyika with professors John Sutton and Janet Watson (geology royalty of the day). His appointment to the Geological Survey of Tanganyika was even reported in “Nature.” Nonetheless, when Thomas Abraham-James and Josh Bluett came across a secondary reference to the thermal springs report, “Investor’s Guide to Industrial Minerals in Tanzania,” they assumed there was a typing error, for it reported that some springs emitted gases in which the helium concentration was more than 10 percent. It was 2013-14 and at the time, Abraham-James resided in Tanzania, a gold and base metal prospector, and Bluett, who was a good friend to Abraham-James, was in country for a holiday. Ever the explorer, Abraham-James drove Bluett out to see the gold prospect he was evaluating.
Lying on the back seat of the Land Cruiser was the “Investor’s Guide.” Bluett flicked through it and, as a petroleum geologist, it was the reports on helium that caught his eye. He was fully aware of the supply crisis for helium and that most commercial production came from gases with less than 1-percent helium.
Further investigation was clearly imperative.
The geological Survey records by James proved decisive. The East African Rift of Tanzania could be of global significance. Helium has been recoded from thermal seeps at concentrations of 4.4 percent to 18.2 percent. Abraham-James and Bluett wasted no time – Helium One was founded and exploration licenses taken in the most prospective areas. At much the same time, the call was made to Barry at Oxford and the Oxford-Durham team brought onboard. We met at the Turf Tavern in Oxford and we discussed in muted tones the geology of the Rukwa area of Tanzania. According to the research conducted by the Durham-Oxford team, helium concentrations in gases are likely to be at their highest in areas with ancient granitic basement and a recent (geological) heating event. Rukwa certainly met those criteria. We were thus set to test our hypothesis in a spectacular way.
In December 2015, Barry travelled to Tanzania and sampled the springs found by James in the 1950s.
Testing the Methodology
Had the sampling been successful?
There were some stressful moments as the sampling tubes were evacuated in Ballentine’s Oxford laboratory, but all was well. By spring 2016, the high helium contents of the gases had been confirmed and the geological appraisal of the Rukwa area was undertaken using vintage seismic and well data. Simultaneous press releases were made by Helium One on the helium volumetrics (audited by Netherland Sewell and Associates of Houston) and by the Oxford-Durham team on the helium concentration and geochemistry of the nitrogen-helium seeps. The resource assessment for Rukwa suggests that the most likely prospective helium resource is 98.9billion cubic feet while the range (P90-P10) is 25.5-322.2Bcf.
With adjacent areas still to be evaluated, this makes Tanzania the most exciting new helium province to emerge this century, and probably the first-ever helium province to emerge while exploring for helium rather than petroleum. The discovery vindicated the exploration strategy we developed and the sampling and analysis methods that enabled quantification of the discovery.
What we now know is that the key elements for success in exploring for helium are determined to be:
1) Archean, or at least very ancient, granitic basement to source the 4He, (3He is primordial) from thorium and uranium decay,
2) a geologically recent event providing the heat and pressure to enable helium and other volatiles to escape from the crystal lattice,
3) the advection of released helium with carrier gases (usually nitrogen),
4) transport to the site of accumulation either as a solution in groundwater or as a free gas phase,
5) exsolution of the nitrogen-helium mixture at shallow depth, or partitioning of the dissolved gases into a pre-existing gas accumulation, or the trapping of a free gas phase.
From this list, it is clear that East Africa had the potential to be a location where helium has accumulated in the subsurface and it is not alone.
Author’s note: Diveena Danabalan, Pete Barry, Colin Macpherson and Chris Ballentine contributed heavily to this article. Danablan and Macpherson are with Durham University in the UK. Barry and Ballentine are with Oxford University.
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