Air Products and MATHESON, a member of the Taiyo Nippon Sanso Corporation (TNSC) group, have announced that on-site construction has commenced on a new, jointly-owned liquid helium production plant near Big Piney, Wyoming.

The plant, designed to produce 200 million standard cubic feet per year at start-up, with expectations for future expansion to 400 million standard cubic feet per year, will process crude helium produced by a natural gas processing facility operated by Cimarex Energy Co.

After the recent news that the price of crude helium for open market sales would be increasing by 15.8% due to a revised pricing methodology from the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), news of the Big Piney, Wyoming development will comes as a light breath of fresh air.

While the new joint venture plant will only represent around a 3% increment to world supply, it is likely to be the only new capacity expected to come online before 2013, gasworld understands.

The Cimarex facility, which is currently under construction, will process natural gas from the Riley Ridge Field in Wyoming, one of the largest helium-rich natural gas fields in the US. The Riley Ridge field is believed to contain sufficient helium reserves to support production for decades.

Production at the new Wyoming plant is anticipated to commence in 2011.

Air Products, the global leader in helium production, has pioneered many of the helium extraction, production, distribution and storage technologies used in the industry today. Air Products maintains the world’s largest helium production and distribution system and operates numerous facilities around the world.

“The Big Piney plant will further diversify our helium source portfolio and enhance our ability to reliably serve our customer base,” said John Van Sloun, General Manager – Worldwide Helium at Air Products. “We are excited to be involved with this project as a direct participant, because it will enable us to provide high on stream operations and reliable supply.”

MATHESON manages the global helium business of TNSC under the name MATHESON Global Helium. TNSC is the leading helium supplier in Japan, and is one of only five major industrial gas companies in the world with direct access to helium sources.

“The helium produced from the Big Piney Plant will help to solidify MATHESON’s helium supply for the long-term and will give us the opportunity to grow our business. We are pleased that our newest source will be located in Wyoming, close to our existing supply from ExxonMobil, which will enable us to have a simple, efficient and reliable supply chain to serve our customers located in the US and Asian markets,” said Phil Kornbluth, Executive Vice President, International and Helium for MATHESON, in a statement announcing the news.

In last month’s issue of gasworld magazine, Kornbluth exclusively explained how a potentially tighter helium market lay ahead for the next few years, with the aforementioned pricing step change, little new capacity before 2013 or 2014, and a general scarcity of supply.

He told us, “Look for increased scarcity of helium and higher costs not too far down the road, with no relief in sight until major new sources commence supply in 2013 or 2014.”

Upon completion, the Wyoming helium production plant will be the 10th liquid helium plant operating in the US, and the first new US facility constructed in over a decade. It is expected to employ 8-10 people after start-up.