The subject of helium supply shortages has been in the headlines for almost three years now, with the Middle East often cited as a key long-term area of supply salvation.

In the view of the helium team at the US’ Matheson Tri-Gas Inc. (MTG), there could certainly be a number of helium projects in the region in the future.

Helium production plants are generally only embarked upon as an add-on to a natural gas processing facility, funded elsewhere by an energy company.

Such facilities tend to represent long lead-time projects routinely requiring a minimum of two to three years. These are also plans that require extensive investment of potentially billions of dollars, from leading energy companies that have spent months and years deliberating the merits of the venture.

Following such investment in a natural gas production and processing site, a helium production facility may then be considered as an additional project, provided that there is a sufficient concentration of helium in the natural gas. Essentially, this ensures that it is very much a case of going where the energy growth is.

That energy growth is almost certain to take place in the Middle East in future, a resource-rich region with deep pockets of helium-bearing natural gas.

MTG would appear to agree with this notion and sees the Middle East as an ‘important region’. Bob Lein, Director of Helium Sourcing for MTG Global Helium, told gasworld, “There is an abundance of helium-bearing natural gas in the region and it’s our understanding that the current plant in Qatar, which began production in 2005, is now at full production.”

“Helium projects tend to follow energy projects. To the extent that the Middle East is a resource rich region containing significant reserves of helium-bearing natural gas, as those energy projects exploit that gas, the expectation is that helium projects will follow.”

“In short,” he concluded, “it is an important region and we would expect to see more helium projects developed there.”

This could also become increasingly important as other plants around the world, such as the Skikda facility in Algeria, take time to reach optimum production capacity and production from some of the older facilities begins to decline due to depletion of natural gas reserves.

Caution is still urged, however. While colleague Phil Kornbluth, Executive Vice President of Global Helium for MTG, share’s Lein’s confidence in the Middle East potential, he also takes note of the political risk associated with helium supply derived from this part of the world.

Though a currently strong source of helium and rich in natural gas supply, political uncertainty in future years could just as easily result in less than certain export supply to the West, and we should perhaps not take this resource for granted.