Helium discovery is the supply breakthrough science, medicine, and industry needed

This may be the largest helium reservoir in US history.
Aerial view of the site of the Topaz helium project in Minnesota via Pulsar Helium

A recent discovery in Minnesota has unveiled a helium reservoir with astonishingly high concentrations of the gas, surpassing initial estimations and potentially opening doors for commercial extraction.

Pulsar Helium, an exploration company, revealed the discovery of helium reserves in late February 2024, following drilling activities near Babbitt, northern Minnesota, reaching depths of 2,200 feet (670 meters). Initial findings displayed helium concentrations of 12.4%, described by Thomas Abraham-James, the president and CEO of Pulsar Helium, as “a dream” in an interview with CBS News.[1] The discovery represents an unprecedented opportunity to gain access to helium at concentration levels dramatically exceeding the normal 0.3% or 0.5% helium concentration levels that would be considered noteworthy. The newly discovered reserve could hold the potential capacity to make a real difference to long-term global supply.

Helium has thousands of applications across hundreds of industrial, scientific, and medical fields.

The discovery comes on the heels of a non-trivial global supply shortage, steadily increasing costs, and raising concerns about civilization’s long-term ability to service medical[2], scientific, and industrial demands for helium. Fears of an imminent helium shortage have been building for decades, with Cornell scientist Robert Richardson quoted in August of 2010 in Popular Science saying, “Unfortunately, party balloons will be $100 each rather than $3, but we’ll have to live with that,”[3] 

Helium remains a critically indispensable, non-renewable super-coolant and nobly inert gas that has thousands of applications across hundreds of industrial, scientific, and medical fields; 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium keeps every one of the U.S. fleet of an estimated 13,280 life-saving MRI machines operational.[4] Without an abundant and relatively inexpensive supply of helium, a number of critical scientific, medical, and industrial applications[5] would go offline, from particle accelerators to the helium-neon lasers used in eye surgery — and from weather balloons to the coolant in nuclear reactors.

You could count the number of large helium gas fields on two hands, with digits to spare.

Unfortunately, helium is about as non-renewable as a resource comes. Despite its abundant prevalence in the universe, helium remains incredibly scarce on Earth due to its geological origins and where it’s found. All the helium available to humanity was formed during the natural radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium, a process taking hundreds of millions of years, deep below the earth’s crust. What little helium that is created typically slips through the crust, eventually finding its way into the atmosphere and out into space; the fate of nearly all helium. Every liter of liquid and gaseous helium civilization has access to was geologically captured under largely impermeable cap rocks, the same gas traps that sequester oil and natural gas, and as such, our global helium supply is a byproduct of hydrocarbon exploration and production. 

The combination of helium-producing source rock, and impermeable gas traps is a geological condition significantly rarer than the conditions which produce hydrocarbon gas fields.  The vast majority of helium is produced through fractional distillation, siphoning off the tiniest fractions of helium found in existing natural gas reservoirs, and while there are thousands of natural gas fields, you could count the number of large helium gas fields on two hands, with digits to spare. 

“The final component necessary is a trapping mechanism, such as a sedimentary basin or, in our case, an igneous rock. In our scenario, it’s had 1.1 billion years to accumulate, potentially explaining the exceptionally high concentration.”

Thomas Abraham-James

The United States has historically and concurrently been the world’s largest producer, followed by Qatar, Algeria, and Russia[6]; however, the U.S. privatization and planned sell-off of the strategic helium reserve at the Cliffside Storage Facility, 12 miles (19 km) northwest of Amarillo, Texas, through the Helium Stewardship Act.[7] has bolstered concerns that the sell-off of an already depleted reserve may place long-term supply chain security at risk.[8] The breakthrough helium discovery in Minnesota couldn’t have come at a better time.

While helium supply has been declining in slow lockstep with increasing demand for decades, scientists, producers, and users have been optimizing usage and improving storage to reduce waste and, most critically, beginning to put real effort into new exploration and production, targeting fresh helium fields. 

Bringing new helium fields online, such as the one discovered in Minnesota, will require significant capital investment and infrastructure development and is unlikely to happen in the near term; however, the breakthrough and the magnitude of the inferred reserves held therein are evidence that we haven’t yet exhausted the capacity to bring much-needed helium to market. The discovery, inspired by years of work driven by strong market demand, is an outstanding example of how free markets and innovation backfill resource shortages and drive human progress.

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