MATHESON and Air Products have confirmed the start of production operations at their jointly-owned liquid helium production plant near Big Piney, Wyoming.

Operations began with the filling and shipping of the first two 11,000 gallon helium ISO containers from the plant.

The facility is designed to produce 200 million standard cubic feet of helium per year initially, with expectations for future expansion to 400 million standard cubic feet per year.

gasworld understands the plant now becomes the tenth liquid helium plant operating in the US and also the first new facility constructed in what is the world’s largest helium market in over a decade.

The Big Piney helium facility purifies and liquefies a helium feedgas stream that is supplied by Denbury Resources’ Riley Ridge gas processing plant. The Denbury plant processes a raw gas stream produced from the LaBarge Field in Wyoming, one of the largest helium-rich gas fields in the US.

A significant note, the LaBarge Field is believed to contain sufficient helium reserves to support production for decades.

“Helium produced at the Big Piney plant will help to ensure long-term security of supply for MATHESON’s existing helium customers, and provides us with an exciting opportunity to expand our business,” said John Bigham, Vice-President, Global Helium for MATHESON.

“Big Piney’s location in southwest Wyoming, close to our existing supply from ExxonMobil, provides logistics synergies and promotes a stable, efficient and reliable supply chain to serve our customers located in the U.S. and abroad.”

Diversify

The beginning of operations at Big Piney finally takes this joint venture project into a new phase; construction commenced on the plant in October 2010 with production originally anticipated for 2011.

It also comes at a time of ongoing need to diversify sourcing in the global helium business, with the shortages experienced in the market in recent years and terms like ‘the helium cliff’ coined as fears mounted over the future security of the BLM-operated Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas – one of the world’s biggest sources of helium.

“This plant is beginning production operations at a good time as both suppliers and manufacturing end-users of helium are still recovering from a global helium supply shortage. Big Piney alone won’t solve the supply issue, but it will help to provide additional helium at this critical time”

Walter Nelson, Air Products

With estimates that around 75% of the helium produced in 2013 came from natural gas production in the US, and with 40% of the approximate 4.6 bn SCF of helium produced in the US each year sourced from the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas, the future security of this resource was arguably the biggest development of recent years.

The passing of new legislation last year maintains up to 4 BCF per year of capacity linked to the BLM Pipeline and provides continued stable access to the taxpayer-owned helium supplies while industry commissions and continues to develop new helium sources.

Start-up of the world’s largest helium purification and liquefaction unit at Ras Laffan, Qatar last year by RasGas and Air Liquide was another major development for the global helium business, adding approximately 38 million cubic meters of helium per year at full capacity and making Qatar the world’s second-largest producer of helium with 25% of current global production.

Now with the start of operations at the Air Products-MATHESON (APMTG) plant in Wyoming, an even broader portfolio of helium supply is available. Walter Nelson, General Manager – Worldwide Helium at Air Products, said of today’s announcement, “This plant is beginning production operations at a good time as both suppliers and manufacturing end-users of helium are still recovering from a global helium supply shortage. Big Piney alone won’t solve the supply issue, but it will help to provide additional helium at this critical time.”

“Going forward, the Big Piney plant will further diversify our helium source portfolio in our efforts to reliably serve our customers.”