As our industry continues to find itself entrenched in the midst of a helium supply shortage, it’s of some reassurance that upcoming projects could add fresh capacity to the global market.

A select number of helium production projects could come on-stream between 2011 and 2013, potentially delivering significant new capacity to the market.

Before then however, the Air Products and Matheson Tri-Gas joint venture (JV) near Big Piney, Wyoming will provide some modest relief to a tight supply situation. gasworld can reveal to its readers, that progress is on track for this facility and start-up is currently expected to commence some time in 2010.

The new liquid helium production plant near Big Piney, Wyoming will be the first new facility of its kind in the US since 2000, and is designed to produce around 200 million cubic feet per year from start-up.

It will process crude helium produced by a natural gas facility owned by Cimarex Energy Co. and its partner Riley Ridge LLC and upon completion, will help to cater for the extensive market demand for helium.

The facility will also be the tenth liquid helium plant operating in the US and Matheson Tri-Gas Inc. (MTG) exclusively told gasworld, that the project is progressing toward a start-up in 2010.

Bob Lein, Director of Helium Sourcing for MTG Global Helium, explained, “It will be the first facility of its kind in the US in quite some time. Production was originally expected to commence in 2009 - I’d say the project’s still on track but there have been some minor delays along the way.”

“So I’d say our current expectation is that we’re looking at 2010 for start-up, with onsite construction commencing next summer (2009).”

Breaking even
MTG colleague Phil Kornbluth, the company’s Executive Vice President of Global Helium, also described how the Wyoming plant is comparatively small in relation to major projects of large scale investment.

Combined with Linde’s Darwin helium plant currently under construction in Australia’s Northern Territory, the two projects would amount to the equivalent of one large project. The Darwin plant is likely to ease the export supply burden on the US somewhat, but the effects of both projects are not expected to make a colossal difference.

Instead, Kornbluth suggests, the impact of this new capacity will help the supply-demand equation break even by the close of 2010.

Lein supports this view and reflected on the overall picture of the market, as well as MTG’s wider efforts to alleviate tight supply.

He said, “We’ve got our project with Air Products in Wyoming, which would probably be the next project after Darwin to come on-stream. To the extent that it would help supply the US markets and also make some product available for export, it would provide some relief.”

“The most significant new supply opportunity that we are currently working on is certainly the project in Wyoming, but we’re always looking to develop new sources of supply just like other folks in our industry.”

And what of the helium market going forward? How is this likely to shape-up as the next few years unfold?

Kornbluth concluded, “The 2009 & 2010 market is vulnerable to shortage, while a little bit of a question mark exists over how much the economy affects demand in 2009. A handful of new sources are possible in the 2011-2013 period, and the degree of market tightness depends on the timing of those new projects and how well they come into production.”