Helium is essential in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because it helps to cool the machine’s superconductive magnets. It is also invaluable in the space industry to clean rocket engines, keep satellite tools cool, and to pressurize the inside of rockets running on liquid fuel. It’s also used to condense hydrogen and oxygen and turn them into rocket fuel.
Even a thing as simple as a barcode reader has helium in it.
Reserves, however, are not exactly abundant – helium is traditionally derived from natural gas in moderate quantities. Now, with growing use in medicine and space, helium reserves are dwindling and replacement is difficult.
Helium producers look to Canada as U.S. reserve shrinks
“I believe southwest Saskatchewan [and] southeast Alberta to be prolific future helium producers,” said Bo Sears, president of Weil’s helium subsidiary.
Helium, a $4.7-billion industry according to the market research firm Mordor Intelligence, is a byproduct of natural gas production. But because of high prices, small players are exploring fields of helium-bearing gas once considered too expensive to exploit, said helium consultant Phil Kornbluth.
Canada has the fifth-largest global helium resource as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey. “The gas in Saskatchewan and Alberta has rich concentration, which you don’t find everywhere,” Mr. Kornbluth said. “And Canada is politically secure. If you have a choice of Canada or Russia, where would you rather do business?”
Saskatchewan issued 17 permits and leases from 2014 to January of 2016 for helium, its busiest period in 50 years, according to government records. “There’s some optimism that this could grow to be a pretty good opportunity,” said Bill Boyd, Saskatchewan’s Minister of the Economy.
Quantum Helium Management Corp., which opened a lower-grade helium plant in Saskatchewan in 2013, is planning to build two more plants within two years in Saskatchewan and Alberta, said president Ovi Marin.
The wind-down of the U.S. reserve is a “positive element,” Mr. Marin said. “We have a niche and we plan to expand on it.”
Helium producers look to Canada as U.S. reserve shrinks - The Globe and Mail