News from Nagapattinam in India of a technological breakthrough recently, as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Limited achieved the inauguration of the first Helium Extraction Pilot Plant in the country, at its Gas Collecting Station at Kuthalam near Mayiladuturai.

The Corporation produces more than a million cubic metres of natural gas per day in Kuthalam and the plant was designed, manufactured and installed by the Adsorption Research Incorporated (ARI), of the US.

The helium extraction plant was set up to extract and purify helium through a joint technology venture involving the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, ONGC, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC).

Inaugurating the plant, which amounted to a set up cost of around Rs6 crore, ONGC chairman R.S. Sharma said, “The project is a significant step towards the objective of assimilating new technology to make India self- reliant in helium.”

“The helium potential of India remains virtually unexplored and harnessing indigenous helium stands to be a prospective option to forestall a crisis of this rare and precious gas in future, through advanced technology intervention.”

The chairman pointed out that most of the gas fields in the country were geologically young and had little or no helium. But Kuthalam in Tamil Nadu, was the first Cretaceous age gas field in India and helium gas was present at 500 ppm (0.05% by volume) concentration in the natural gas produced there.

Worldwide, concentrations above 0.3% are considered for commercial extraction and helium tends to be extracted from natural gas through cryogenic methods. Due to very low concentration of helium in the Kuthalam gas, the Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) technology was applied in four stages so as to produce helium gas of 99% purity.

When stabilised, the plant is expected to have a recovery percentage of 60%.

India was entirely dependent on imports and required about 180,000 cubic metres of helium per annum at a cost of around Rs20 crore. Such a breakthrough from the ONGC will be vital for self-sustaining industry and applications in the future.

“Helium has crucial applications in space technology, cryogenics, nuclear reactors and a host of high end technologies due to its unique physical properties. Helium is crucial for safe diving operations, a critical routine activity in the ONGC’s offshore operations,” Sharma explained.

Bikash Sinha, Director of Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the VECC, explained the need to extract helium at any cost. Sinha noted that helium was not only a noble gas but a precious gas.