The development of green helium – produced from underground gas accumulations that contains very small amounts of hydrocarbons or CO2 – has become a more important topic of conversation among those in the marketplace.
For North American Helium (NAH), conversations surrounding non-hydrocarbon-based helium are the norm. The Canada-based company has been exclusively focused on developing new sources of reliable helium supply from non-hydrocarbon sources.
To some observers, this fresh take on helium production is the future of the industry, as currently nearly all the world’s helium is produced as a by-product of the processing of hydrocarbon-bearing gas at either natural gas processing facilities or LNG plants.
NAH and its Chairman and CEO Nick Snyder believe it is vital to develop new sustainable sources of helium supply in the US and Canada that are capable of reliable long-term production.
“I think every responsible company is moving towards more sustainable sourcing and production of raw materials because that’s just good business in the long term,” Snyder explains to gasworld.
Although top on the priority list for NAH, non-hydrocarbon-based helium, or ‘green helium’, doesn’t appear to be largely common across the marketplace.
“The helium industry has been slower than some others to adopt any sort of sustainable sourcing standards because almost all current helium production comes as a byproduct from a handful of major oil and gas production facilities.” Snyder says.
But he doesn’t believe this to be the leading set back when it comes to producing helium in a more sustainable manner. “The larger problem is that almost all current helium production comes from oil and gas discoveries made decades ago… in some cases almost a century ago. Most of the helium that is being produced today was found by accident in big conventional onshore methane fields, and that type of exploration is no longer done. Today the oil & gas companies are focused on unconventional resources like shale, which doesn’t contain helium in economic quantities,” he adds.
“For that reason, we think a move toward sustainability in this industry requires a big investment into exploration for helium from non-hydrocarbon sources and that has been our company’s focus for the last decade. In my mind, sustainability means two things; one is the immediate environmental impact, and the other is asking ‘can you depend on this a decade or two from now?’ On that second point, there is nothing less sustainable than an industry depending on the oil & gas companies to find more helium when they aren’t even looking for these types of fields anymore”.
That said, Snyder does acknowledge that the major industrial gas companies and the major helium end-users are committed to lowering their emissions profile and adds that NAH hopes to support that.
“Our primary goal is to provide reliable supply for our customers, and we think that can best be accomplished by producing helium from non-hydrocarbon sources.”
“Helium is a relatively small component of any underground gas reservoir, so it is really the other gases that dictate the environmental footprint, the operational risk, the energy consumption, the emissions profile, and the other factors that drive long-term sustainability.”
“Over time, we expect to become a larger part of the industry and we think the benefits of helium production from nitrogen fields will become more apparent and end users may begin to place a premium on that,” he adds.
Eager to achieve its goals, NAH has already had a flying start to the year. At the end of February (2023), the company announced that it has brought two additional helium purification facilities on-stream in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
The new sites bring NAH’s current production to more than 110 million cubic feet a year, across five facilities. Looking beyond this, the company plans to market approximately 60 million cubic feet a year of additional helium volumes throughout 2023.
Industrial gas giant Linde has been named as the primary off taker of the helium from the newest projects that are onstream, having signed a long-term agreement with NAH.
NAH has previously signed similar agreements with Air Liquide for other facilities.
And while the company has stated that long term offtake agreements are the core of its business, NAH now plans to keep a portion of its supply available for sale in the spot market. Beginning in early 2023, customers will have the option to purchase spot loads of high purity helium gas or liquid to meet their critical business needs.
Snyder adds, “As we continue to grow, we expect to become a larger part of the helium supply picture in North America, and ultimately a major global producer.”
“We believe our non-hydrocarbon sustainable helium supply is more attractive to industrial gas distributors and also helium end-users not only because of their own emissions reduction goals but also because we have shown our operations to be more reliable than some hydrocarbon-linked helium projects.”
But it’s not just the facilities themselves that NAH is investing in. The company is also enhancing its trailer fleet to better support its customers logistically.
NAH currently has a fleet of 15 high volume composite trailers to deliver gaseous helium and is adding 10 more of these high-capacity trailers during 2023. The company will also be taking delivery this year of its first liquid helium ISO containers from Gardner Cryogenics.
A deal between the two companies will see delivery of six Gardner 175-40 ISO containers for the transportation of liquid helium. The new ISO containers will further expand NAH’s offering to customers and logistics capabilities.
A taste of what’s to come…
It goes without saying that NAH has had a flying start to the year, but its plans don’t stop there. Speaking to gasworld recently Snyder said the company is now operating at a scale where there are multiple prospects getting ready to drill, multiple discoveries undergoing additional development drilling, and multiple production facilities coming online each year.
What does that mean for the remainder of 2023?
“Our focus is on replacing production that is being lost from declining legacy sources in North America, so we really don’t need to have a view on the global market. This has never been more important than during this current shortage, because of the growing helium demand from the semiconductor and space exploration industries in North America,” Snyder answers.
Adding to this point, he notes that the industry view is that North America will become a net importer of helium in the coming years, so NAH sees a lot of demand to be met. With this in mind, 2023 and beyond will be filled with new drilling activity, new partnerships and a number of new facilities.