Market Snapshot: Helium – it’s Not Just for Balloons
Release date: 2022-05-25
Helium is used in high-tech applications including cooling Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, the production of fiber optics, semiconductors (transistors), flat panel displays, and in the aerospace industry.Footnote 1 In addition to high-tech applications, helium is used as lifting gas in balloons, and can also be used in leak detection for vacuum sealed containers.Definition* As helium use becomes more common, demand is expected to grow in the future and could be partially met with Canadian-produced helium.
The future of helium in Canada
The United States Geological Survey estimates Canada has helium resources of 70 Billion Cubic Feet (Bcf), the fifth largest in the world.Footnote 2 This large resource base has attracted investment, with most interest in helium exploration focused in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Since 2018, land leased for helium exploration has quadrupled in Saskatchewan. In response, the government of Saskatchewan developed an action plan to enable helium development in the province, with the goal of producing 10% of the world’s helium by 2030.Footnote 3 Currently, Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada commercially producing helium with about 1% of the world’s helium supply. In Alberta, the provincial government introduced a new royalty rateDefinition* in 2020, set at 4.25%, in response to interest from potential producers.Footnote 4 Helium produced in Alberta and Saskatchewan would have to be shipped to its destination by truck or rail, as there are currently no dedicated helium pipelines or plans to build them in Canada.
Helium supply chain
How is helium produced?
Helium is a non-reactive element that is produced by drilling wells into underground reservoirs and bringing it to the surface as a gas. Most helium is produced alongside natural gas, although it can also be found in reservoirs containing mostly nitrogen. Helium is generally found in low concentrations in underground reservoirs (below 0.1% by volume), although in some helium-rich reservoirs concentrations may be above 10%. Generally, helium can be profitably extracted when concentrations are higher than 0.5%, although this varies based on economic factors such as the price of helium, proximity to markets, and the cost of processing.
How is it transported?
Once the mixture containing helium is brought to the surface, the components are separated and then moved via truck or ship to conditioning facilities, where they are prepared for the final consumer.Footnote 5 Helium moved by ship is normally liquified to reduce its volume and therefore reduce costs.Footnote 6 Helium can also be moved by pipeline, although this currently only occurs in the United States (U.S.) where the Bureau of Land Management operates a pipeline that supplies over 40% of U.S. helium demand.Footnote 7
Figure 1: Helium concentration in Alberta and Saskatchewan wells
Sources and Description
Description: This map shows the helium concentration in the gases produced from wells in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Values on this map range from 0.5% to 14% helium concentration, with the large, dark red dots representing higher concentrations. Since helium is generally more profitable to produce when it is in higher concentrations producers may drill in areas of western Canada where concentrations are high.
The market for helium is often governed by contracts between suppliers and buyers with prices kept confidential. The United States Geological Survey estimated that Grade-A helium (helium that is refined to 99.997% purity or greater) traded for $214.36 USD per thousand cubic feet (Mcf) on the private market in 2019. More recent estimates suggest Grade-A helium traded for between $300 USD/Mcf and $600 USD/Mcf in late 2021.Footnote 8Footnote 9 For comparison, the average price of natural gas at Henry Hub was $3.68 USD/Mcf in December 2021.Footnote 10
Figure 2: Share of global helium demand by end use
Source and Description
Source: Edison Investment Research
Description: Pie chart showing global helium demand by end use in 2019. Cryogenics make up the largest portion at 23% and lifting, which includes use in balloons, accounts for the second largest at 15%. Estimated global helium demand was 6.2 billion cubic feet in 2019.
Canada’s interest is driven by declining U.S. production and strong global demand
In 2019, it is estimated the world used 6.2 billion cubic feet (bcf) of helium, with most being produced in the U.S, although production has declined in recent years. In 2010, the U.S. produced 76% of the world’s helium, but this share has shrunk as the U.S. has depleted its national reserves and production from Qatar has increased.Footnote 11 The decline in U.S. production and increasing demand from electronic manufacturers in Asia, has spurred interest in helium production in other countries, including Canada.
Figure 3: Estimated helium production by country
Source and Description
Description: Estimated world helium production by country from 2010 to 2020. Estimated production of helium has been decreasing since 2013 when it peaked at 4.96 bcf. In 2020, it fell to 4.08, largely due to decreased production from the U.S. Since 2010, Canada has not produced more than 1 bcf per year. The difference between estimated 2019 production (4.08 bcf) and demand (6.29 bcf) could be due to differences in measurement as there is little publicly available information on the international helium market. Withdrawals from storage facilities may also be used to meet demand when helium supply is low.
The market for helium is likely to expand as its use in high tech applications continues to grow. Canada may be able to meet a growing share of this demand as it has some of the largest reserves in the world, even though production is currently low. Recent exploration for helium in Alberta, and especially Saskatchewan, could bring more production online in the next few years.
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