RasGas has inaugurated its second helium operation in Qatar, known as Helium 2 and marking an important shift in the make-up of the global helium market.

The development represents the world’s largest helium plant coming on-stream in the Middle East and reinforces the trend for helium sources moving away from their traditional base in the US.

Further, gasworld understands from senior sources that, as of October 2013, Helium 2 was running at close to full capacity with a reported utilisation rate of 95%.

The inauguration took place at the Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar, under the patronage of Qatar’s Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Thani. The official inauguration of the plant was carried out by the country’s Minister of Energy and Industry, His Excellency Dr Mohammed Bin Saleh Al Sada.

The event was also attended by Hasmad Rashid Al Mohannadi, RasGas’ CEO, as well as senior government officials and senior personnel from Qatar Petroleum, RasGas, Qatargas, ExxonMobil, project shareholders, contracted customers and contractors.

Market shift

With Helium 2 on-stream, Qatar is now the largest exporter and the second-largest producer outright of helium in the world.

The country’s reserves of helium total some 360 billion cubic feet, of which RasGas foresees to refine and produce some two billion cubic feet per year. The feed gas available from Qatar’s North Field is of comparatively high purity and has a helium content of up to 0.05%.

“gasworld understands that, as of October 2013, Helium 2 was running at close to full capacity with a reported utilisation rate of 95%”

Hamad Rashid Al Mohannadi, RasGas CEO, commented, “I am proud to say that not only has the Helium 2 project enabled Qatar to fulfil this vision by becoming the largest exporter of helium in the world, but it has done so with the use of innovative technology, collaboration, operational excellence and an enviable safety record of no lost time incidents throughout the project.”

Thomas Blade, Member of the Executive Board, The Linde Group, added, “Right now we obtain about 25% of our helium from Qatar, that will rise to about 30% and I think it may go higher in the future.”

With Helium 2 first breaking ground in May 2010, off-take agreements were signed shortly afterwards with Air Liquide, Iwatani Corporation and Linde Group. Air Liquide will receive 50% of available product, with Linde and Iwatani receiving 30% and 20% of annual production up until 2032.

As of October 2013, Helium 2 was running at close to full capacity with a reported utilisation rate of 95%, a senior source from Air Liquide told gasworld. The operation is now running smoothly but during the course of its ramp-up over the past half-year, various teething problems have, as might be expected, been encountered.

gasworld has learned that utilisation rates were initially considerably lower than 95%, though this was more a result of insufficient feed gas reaching the helium refinery than any significant problems with the associated technology.

Sources close to the operational side of Helium 2 further explained that production has, on occasion, had to be scaled back as a result of insufficient storage for refined helium product onsite at Ras Laffan. This in turn perhaps suggests some difficulties in transporting helium from the facility to end-users, and that there may yet be one or two logistical hurdles to clear until production can fully stabilise.

Future

Going forward, RasGas – in partnership with Qatargas (both subsidiaries of Qatar Petroleum) – will further consolidate its market share with the opening of an additional facility, Helium 3.

Air Liquide is understood to currently be in the process of beginning talks with RasGas to make this happen, and there is the possibility that this will come on-line as early as 2017. The exact capacity of the plant is currently unknown, but we do know that this installation will be smaller than Helium 1.

 

Helium from LNG

The Helium 2 plant also highlights the increasing movement toward helium production from LNG operations. The plant incorporates highly complex and advanced technology that captures, extracts and refines crude helium from six liquefied natural gas (LNG) mega trains:  RasGas’ trains 6 and 7, and Qatargas’ trains 4, 5, 6 and 7.

RasGas managed the two-year construction project and now operates the plant which has an annual production capacity of 1.3 billion standard cubic feet (Bscf). This effectively triples production at the site, with the earlier Helium 1 plant already producing some 650 million standard cubic feet per year.

Francois Darchis, Senior Vice-President and a Member of the Executive Committee, Air Liquide Group, said, “Although helium is small in comparison with the core LNG business, it is a very good and courageous decision to say, let’s extract the helium at the same time.”

“It adds some complexity to the plant, but at the same time it brings extra value because helium has multiple uses across medical, scientific and communications fields.”