Helium

Helium, the second most abundant element in the universe, was discovered on the sun before it was found on the earth. Pierre-Jules-César Janssen, a French astronomer, noticed a yellow line in the sun’s spectrum while studying a total solar eclipse in 1868 and Sir Norman Lockyer, an English astronomer, determined that this line could not be produced by any element known at the time. It was hypothesized that this new element on the sun was responsible for the yellow emission and Lockyer named it helium after the Greek god of the sun, Helios.

However, it was a Scottish chemist, Sir William Ramsay, who in 1895 was the first to find helium on earth. He conducted an experiment with clevite, a mineral containing uranium, exposing it to acids and collecting the gases that were produced. Helium was identified within these gases.

Despite its abundance in the universe, helium is relatively scarce on earth, making up only about 0.0005 per cent. of the earth’s atmosphere. This trace amount is not gravitationally bound to the earth and is constantly lost to space but is replaced by the decay of radioactive elements in the earth’s crust. Alpha radioactive decay produces alpha particles which can become helium atoms once they capture two electrons from their surroundings. This newly formed helium can eventually work its way into the atmosphere through cracks in the earth’s crust.

Helium’s main attributes are:

  • Inert
  • Lighter than air
  • Small atomic radius
  • Low solubility
  • Lowest boiling point of any element
  • Non-flammable
  • Non-toxic
  • Non-radioactive
  • Odourless
  • Colourless

Helium is a noble gas and the smallest of all known elements, the second lightest and has the lowest boiling point. This combination of characteristics places helium as a unique commodity with numerous applications.

It also does not react to other elements or chemicals, making it the only gas that can be used to purge the liquid engines of super colliders and rockets.

As helium is lighter than air, it is actively being lost into space.

However, helium is also actively being created via the decay of naturally occurring radioactive elements in rocks over time. The produced helium is liberated and carried in saline groundwater.

As a high-value product (prices have quadrupled in the past 20 years), liquid helium can be transported to reserves and processing facilities via ISO containers mounted onto trucks with no pipelines being necessary.

Source: US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries

Helium’s unique properties make it essential for vital technologies that affect our lives every day.

Advanced Medical Imaging Equipment

Helium is used in advanced medical imaging equipment like MRIs, providing the super cooling needed for the creation of powerful magnetic fields by these devices.

Advanced Scientific Research

Helium is used in a variety of advanced scientific research applications where super cooling and powerful magnetic fields are required.  Applications such as mag-lev trains, superconducting electrical transmission lines and quantum computing are all examples.

Space Exploration & Defence Applications

Helium is used in space exploration and defence applications. Helium has unique properties such that it is the only gas that can be used to pressurise the liquid fuels that power the rockets driving space exploration, as well as the blimps and airships that have other applications within the atmosphere.

Manufacturing

Helium is required for the manufacture of semiconductors, fibre optics, liquid crystal displays and many other applications. By way of an everyday example, helium was required to make the equipment and components necessary to make computers and Internet connection systems work.

World helium reserves

GasRock estimates

Helium production is a $6 billion annual market (6 bcf) globally. Helium is generally associated as a by-product of natural gas production, when the concentration is high enough to recover economically. Helium supply is therefore co-dependent upon oil and natural gas production and their respective economics. The helium industry is dominated by a few large companies (Linde-Praxair, Air Products, Air Liquide etc).

World helium production

GasRock estimates

Future helium supply is expected to be constrained as US Bureau of Land Management depletes its helium reserve facility to 3 bcf of strategic reserves.  In addition, c. 32% of 6 bcf of global helium production is expected to be lost due to the current export restrictions and other imposed sanctions on Qatar. Additional production capacity is expected to come online in Russia over the next several years, partly offsetting the effects of the Qatar restrictions, but the unstable political environment in Russia may deter buyers.