CHEYENNE – Helium may be the second-lightest element, but it’s weighing heavily on a lot of minds these days as the world struggles with its third global shortage in just 14 years.
It’s gotten bad enough that, when party supply superstore Party City announced earlier this month it plans to shutter 45 of its 870 stores in the U.S., many outlets pointed to helium as the culprit. Party City has since said the closures are unrelated to the helium shortage, but it has acknowledged that some stores have had trouble fulfilling balloon orders due to inconsistent helium supplies, and it hopes to have a new commercial supplier in place by the summer.
It may not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Wyoming, but the Cowboy State plays a key role in keeping the helium supply chain afloat, providing up to 30 percent of the world’s supply.
While most people probably know helium best for its role in the party balloon business, or for the funny way it raises the pitch of your voice, it’s actually one of the most critically important elements on the planet. In fact, helium is one of 35 mineral materials considered essential to U.S. national economic and security interests, as recently defined by the Department of the Interior.
That’s because, aside from making balloons and blimps float, helium has many important uses in the technology sector.
With the lowest boiling point of any element at -452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is used as a coolant for magnets in MRI machines and for research operations like Europe’s Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. Because it’s light and nonreactive, it’s also used as a shielding gas in arc welding, and it’s added to air tanks to make it easier for lungs to take in oxygen during deep ocean dives.
“It’s almost too valuable to fill party balloons with,” said Scott Quillinan, the director of research at UW’s School of Energy Resources.
But while it makes up about a quarter of all the matter in the universe, helium is surprisingly hard to come by on Earth. The name is a bit of a giveaway – helium was named for the Greek sun god Helios, since it was first detected not on Earth, but as part of the sun’s spectral light signature, caught during a solar eclipse in 1868.
On Earth, it makes up just 0.0005 percent of the air we breathe, and while other important gases like hydrogen and oxygen can be easily separated from more complex molecules, helium is notoriously stable and doesn’t combine with other elements.
That leaves just one primary source for helium on Earth: deep within the ground. As radioactive elements like uranium and thorium break down, they throw off helium atoms that then become trapped in natural gas formations.
“There are competing hypotheses as to why there is even helium in natural gas anywhere,” said geologist Ranie Lynds, the manager of the Wyoming State Geological Survey’s Energy & Mineral Resources division. “Some people have it as being mantle-driven, coming from a lot deeper in the earth, and because it’s so light it’s able to make its way up to the surface where it’s stored with natural gas.”
“Other people have argued it forms more from uranium and thorium decay in sedimentary rocks, then it’s moved along with water through these systems,” Lynds added.
Regardless of how it got there, there’s still not much to go around – helium comprises less than 0.3 percent of most commercial natural gas deposits. But in a handful of places those concentrations rise to as high as 8 percent, making helium extraction economically viable.
In Wyoming, all the state’s commercially-produced helium comes from the LaBarge field in western Sublette County. Natural gas extracted from LaBarge is piped down to ExxonMobil’s Shute Creek natural gas processing plant in eastern Lincoln County, where the helium is separated out from other gases like methane and carbon dioxide.
“The CO2 is sold for enhanced oil recovery opportunities and the methane is used for natural gas sales,” Quillinan said. “The helium concentration is only about 0.6 percent of the gas that comes out, but there’s not many places in the world where you can find helium, so even at those low percentages, it becomes economic to produce.”
Quillinan noted that helium has to be cooled to almost absolute zero – the lowest physically-possible temperature – in order to be liquefied for storage and shipment. And even then, helium’s ultra-light nature makes it hard to keep contained. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, since even Earth’s gravity isn’t enough to keep it from just floating off into space.
“It can be very difficult to handle,” Quillinan said. “I’m an isotope geochemist, and one problem with even sampling isotopes of helium is you can’t use glass containers, because it’ll just slip through the glass.”
The hassle is more than worth it, however. At least ExxonMobil seems to think so: figures published in 2014 in the scientific journal “Minerals” show that Wyoming accounted for 43 percent of U.S. helium production and 31 percent of global production from 2000 to 2012.
“Looking at the numbers for 2012 specifically, Wyoming does top the list, then very close behind it is Kansas, followed by Texas, then Colorado and Oklahoma,” Lynds said. “Right now there’s pretty significant production in Wyoming and I would expect that to continue.”
In January, Wyoming State Geologist Erin Campbell wrote that, along with uranium, helium has some of the best development potential of any mineral material in the state. In addition to the known supplies at LaBarge and elsewhere in southwest Wyoming, Campbell said the WSGS “estimates 14.78 billion cubic feet of marginally economic and subeconomic helium resources exist … in the Greater Green River, Wind River, Powder River, and Bighorn basins and the western Wyoming thrust belt.”
But while those untapped resources may one day help to meet global demand for the gas, industry experts expect the current shortage will likely last through the remainder of this year, unless either demand starts dropping or until other large-scale helium projects in Qatar and Russia come online in 2020 and beyond.