RAS LAFFAN, QATAR // Doomsayers have warned for decades that the world is exhausting its reserves of helium, a strategic gas that is rare on Earth due to its tendency to drift off into space.
Tiny Qatar is now riding to the rescue with a project to build the world's biggest plant for capturing and processing helium that would otherwise be wasted.
Its existing and proposed helium projects received a fillip last week when Abdullah al Attiyah, the deputy prime minister and energy minister of the emirate, said they were an integral part of Qatar's economic vision and its plans to wring more value from its gas reserves.
Qatar is already the world's leading exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and last week celebrated reaching its target of 77 million tonnes of annual output capacity. Building directly on that achievement, by 2013 it could also become the second-biggest international exporter of helium after the US.
"Helium is rarely found in quantities large enough to justify economic extraction," Mr al Attiyah said recently. "Since 2000, world demand for helium has increased by about 20 per cent. The bulk of this increase can be met from Qatar's North Field for many years."
The North Field is the emirate's name for the vast offshore gasfield it shares with Iran, which calls the deposit South Pars. By whichever label, it is the world's biggest gasfield and one of the planet's biggest sources of helium, a component of raw natural gas.
In September, Qatar awarded a contract to the French company Air Liquide to build the world's largest helium refining plant at Ras Laffan, the emirate's flagship gas-based industrial city. The new processing plant would liquefy and purify a stream of non-fuel gas that is rich in helium recovered from Qatar's big LNG production plants.
The US$500 million (Dh1.89 billion) Qatar 2 Helium project, a venture between the state-owned Qatar Petroleum (QP) and international partners such as ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, is expected to start up in just over two years. The plant will be managed and operated by RasGas, one of QP's two LNG subsidiaries.
In addition to the world's purveyors of lighter-than-air party balloons, anyone needing an MRI scan, a fibre-optic cable connection or a weather forecast stands to benefit from new helium supplies. Deep-sea divers and rocket scientists may also breathe easier and are free to thank Doha in squeaky voices.
Qatar's first helium facility came on stream five years ago with a capacity of 700 million cubic feet a year. The second project would add 1.3 billion cu ft a year of annual output capacity, nearly tripling the emirate's total. According to RasGas, global helium demand is about 6 billion cu ft annually, a third of which Qatar could soon provide.
For QP's LNG ventures, helium is an inevitable by-product of cooling partially processed North Field gas to below minus 162°C, the condensation point of its main fuel component, methane. The remaining vapour is mostly helium, which has an even lower dew point than methane. This gas can be siphoned off for processing and further cooling at a specialised helium plant.
Where that is not economically feasible, helium-rich "waste" gas may be vented to the atmosphere. But helium, which is chemically inert and has a tiny atomic weight, does not stay in the atmosphere for long: it diffuses into outer space.
The alternative of harvesting helium for commercial sale is technically challenging. To condense it into a liquid suitable for transportation requires refrigeration to within 4°C of "absolute zero". That is the theoretical point at which, in classical physics, sub-atomic particles stop moving. Air Liquide relies on proprietary technology to bring helium to that state.
"You need very specific know-how to liquefy the helium," said Jacques de Thezy, the chief executive of the company's Middle East unit.
Air Liquide will also market half the helium from the new Ras Laffan project. It plans to supply industrial customers in India, Japan and China, first moving the gas from Qatar to the Jebel Ali port in Dubai for global transhipment in heavily insulated containers.
Despite technical and economic hurdles, the world's commercial supply of helium from natural gas is likely to expand in coming years as a cluster of huge Australian LNG projects takes shape to rival Qatar's.
In the medium term, it may be only the world's appetite for LNG that limits global helium supplies.