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Selling the Nation’s Helium Reserve
The concentrations of helium in the fields are from 0.04 to 0.65 percent; the concentration at which extraction is economically feasible depends on how the natural gas will be processed;
Any refined helium to be produced will have affordable access to worldwide markets; and
The overall economics of the project, not just the volume of gas, justify the capital required to install and maintain the extraction facilities.
These conditions have been satisfied in the United States for many years and are now being satisfied in several other countries, including Poland, Russia, Algeria, Qatar, and China, with a new source currently being developed in Australia. It is likely that helium will also start to be extracted from natural gas in Canada, Indonesia, and Iran during the coming decade, with additional sources being developed during the next 25-50 years. More detailed information is provided in Chapter 4 about the estimated quantity of raw helium in these sources, both now and in the foreseeable future, and the current and future global capacities for extracting helium from them.
Figure 2.1 shows the locations of important international helium recovery and production operations as well as the destination of shipments of helium to significant markets around the world, details of which are discussed later in the chapter.
The three most important natural-gas-processing operations from which helium is extracted are these:
The processing of natural gas to extract natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as propane, ethane, butane, and benzene for fuels and as feedstocks for petrochemical production. This is the helium recovery, processing, and liquefaction basis for the midcontinental helium operations in the Hugoton-Panhandle fields that span Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and were the basis for the U.S. government’s recovery of crude helium during the strategic recovery program through the 1970s. They are discussed in more detail in Chapter 5. Figure 1.3 shows the location of important sources of helium in the United States.
The extraction of natural gas streams rich in CO2, where the CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and the methane in the natural gas is piped to methane markets. This is the process on which ExxonMobil’s large helium operation in the Riley Ridge fields in Wyoming is based.
The processing of natural gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG) for shipment to many of the world’s energy markets. This is the basis for the large helium recovery, processing, and liquefaction operations in Algeria and Qatar and will support future helium recovery operations in those countries and elsewhere.