Extractors hear warnings in squeaky voices

Helium reserves will be gone in 30 years, some say. Others beg to differ.

Just as the world has become hooked on helium for more serious purposes than keeping party balloons aloft, it may be running out of the gas, some experts argue. Others, including the trade group representing the balloon purveyors, say this is nonsense. But who is right? Due to its extremely tiny molecules and lack of chemical reactivity, helium is certainly a slippery customer.

It is formed in the Earth's crust during the radioactive decay of the naturally occurring heavy metals uranium and thorium and usually rises easily to the surface, where not even gravity can bind it to the planet. Instead, helium dissipates into outer space. "Once it is released into the atmosphere, say, in the form of party balloons, it is lost to the Earth forever," Robert Richardson, a Nobel Prize winner, explained in June at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures in Lindau, Germany.

Dr Richardson, who with Douglas Osheroff and David Lee won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physics, predicts the world's helium reserves will be gone in 30 years. But until recently, the gas was largely produced in the US and used in industrialised countries. Helium extraction is now a lucrative emerging business for several of the world's big natural gas exporters. Algeria and Qatar began extracting helium from natural gas in the middle of the past decade. With worldwide consumption of the rare gas rising due to new industrial uses and the emergence of the Asian economies, new helium projects are slated for MENA exporters and Russia and Australia.

But although the world is now glutted with natural gas, not every gasfield contains enough helium to be worth exploiting. Concentrations range from nearly zero in most deposits to as much as 11 per cent in some eastern Siberian fields. The key to finding exploitable helium is to locate large gasfields close to the geothermal "hotspots" that mark unusual amounts of radioactivity near the Earth's surface. Those often exist near mountain ranges with active volcanoes.

Luckily for anyone wishing for uninterrupted helium supplies, some of the world's largest gasfields contain the gas. One is the supergiant North Field-South Pars reservoir, straddling the maritime border between Qatar and the mountainous Iran. "Peak helium" proponents point out that helium is a rare, exhaustible natural resource. They note that the gasfields of eastern Texas, which historically supplied most of the world's helium, are rapidly depleting.

Moreover, the US in 1996 released for commercial sale the strategic helium stockpile it had accumulated over the previous three decades. That supply is expected to disappear in 35 years. Meanwhile, the price slump that followed the US release has spurred industrial innovators to develop new uses for helium. Global demand has increased by more than 20 per cent since 2000. Technology for extracting and processing the gas, however, has advanced and fallen in cost. That has lowered economic thresholds for recovery, allowing emerging producers to compensate for declining US supplies.

BOC, the international industrial gases and vacuum technologies company, is so sure of helium supplies from Qatar that for the past five years it has operated a distribution centre in Dubai's Jebel Ali Free Zone to ship the gas to customers around the world. tcarlisle@thenational.ae