And this development could well become one of the most successful technologies on gas markets, enabling Russia to become a leader in helium production.
Helium is truly a unique gas – it has neither colour, nor taste, nor odour. It is not toxic. Nor is it inflammable or explosive – in fact it is phenomenal in being chemically passive. In terms of its presence throughout the universe – it takes second place, after hydrogen. Helium was first observed in the sun’s corona in 1868 and not found until 27 years later in Earth’s minerals.
So it was not for nothing that one of the first scientists to discover it – Briton Norman Lockyer – called it ἥλιος (helios), or sun in ancient Greek.
Helium is the best conductor of electricity among gases and the second-best conductor of heat after hydrogen. Its boiling point is the lowest of all substances known to humankind at – 269 C. It has no melting point, as liquid helium at any temperature approaching absolute zero does not solidify.
And these characteristics make helium irreplaceable in a number of industrial processes.
From the aqualung to the Hadron Collider
Helium is used in the nuclear industry, in space technologies, in production of mobile telephone parts, semiconductors, liquid crystal displays, optical fibres, computing or measuring equipment, for cooling nuclear reactors and in other sectors.
Thanks to its low boiling point and unique superfluidity, helium is widely used in cryogenic systems. About 28 % of world-wide demand for helium is linked to the production and use of medical equipment in which liquid helium is used to cool superconducting magnets in MRI scanners.
Helium is used in the cooling system of synchrophasotrons, including the one built in the Russian city of Dubna, outside Moscow. But the most advanced stage was the use of helium in the multi-tiered Large Hadron Collider, created as part of the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva. Operating the collider requires support with a temperature of – 27.,25 Celsius and that can be provided only by helium.
A further 18 % of world-wide helium consumption is linked to different types of welding operations, 15 % in the sphere of electronics, including cooling during production of screens for devices and in the creation of fibre optics. The superfluidity of helium means it can be used to find leaks in pipelines and boilers. And its lightness for being pumped into balloons for weather probes and airships. Helium is also used in geology to uncover deep faults and study deep sub-strata of the Earth and to seek out geothermal sources.
Another sector for its use is helium gas in the creation of breathing mixtures for deepwater diving. On the basis of this experience, Russian academics will work out methods of using gas mixtures with helium to treat Coronavirus infections.
“The sectors cited here for using helium refer to helium-4. But in the composition of helium-4 there are contained millionths parts of its isotope of helim-3 and these have a strategic meaning for science and engineering, given that it can have a thermonuclear fusion reaction without producing radioactive radiation. This has provided a basis for considering helium-3 as a fuel for thermonuclear reactors as the future of energy,” Natalia Kislenko, deputy Chief of the Directorate for pre-project Operations at the Saratov branch of Gazprom Proektirovanie (Gazprom projects,) wrote in one of her papers.
Kislenko was one of the developers of a membrane device to recover helium concentrate.
“An analysis of the sectors used for helium shows that with due account of the unique nature of characteristics in a series of sectors, it is impossible to replace helium with different substances,” she wrote.
The balloon turns to gold
Demand for helium can only rise in future as new technologically advanced industrial sectors undergo development. That demand will be prompted by increasingly active medical research using MRIs and the conquering of space using commercial means.
According to an assessment by the CREON Group, from 2016 to 2019 world-wide demand for helium in the space sector rose by 9 % and by 2024 that demand will climb by 21 %.
No less important as a stimulus will be the constantly increased use of various devices. Experts believe that from 2016 to 2020, the number of smart phone users in the world rose from 3.7 billion to 6.1 billion. By 2024, the number of mobile devices in the world will reach 17.7 billion.
According to different estimates, the volume of world-wide helium production and consumption up until 2020 totalled 170-190 million cu. m. per year. But in a medium-term perspective, that number could already exceed 200 million. According to a forecast by Research and Market, by 2025, the worldwide market for helium will hit $18.2 billion, increasing on average by 13 %. A simple helium-filled balloon at a children’s birthday party will therefore become truly golden.
Producing but not using
The main problem in producing marketable helium is that on Earth it is contained mainly in natural gases in very insignificant amounts – thousands, hundreds or – very rarely in tenths of a percent. Estimates put world stocks of helium at about 40 billion cu. About 34 % of those stocks are found in Russia and the largest share of those stocks can be found in deposits in eastern Siberia and the far east. The world’s second largest stocks are located in Qatar (21-25 %) and in third and fourth place are the United States (18 %) and Algeria (17 %).
The fact that helium is merely an impurity in natural gases and extracted as an energy resource exposes the dual nature of helium production. Large-scale development of digital technologies are only getting started and the gas fields where there are significant stocks of helium are already being exploited. Like it or not, production of helium exceeds current demand for helium. As a result, part of the helium gets sent immediately for refining and the remaining part, in the form of concentrate, gets pumped into special storage areas.
Three countries – three outcomes
The United States was the first country to extract helium from natural gas and sent it into federal reserve storage areas – and for about a century already the country has also been the main consumer and producer of helium. To date, the United States remains responsible for about 50 % of shipments of the gas on world markets – 10 years ago that share stood at 85 %.
Shipments are partly linked to new production and partly linked to recovery of helium from the Cliffside storage area set up 19 km from the city of Amarillo in Texas – back in 1925. The facility’s maximum storage capacity is about 1 bilion cu.m. of gas. At the beginning of the 20th century, the storage facility supplied noble gases for dirigibles and in the 1950s, helium came into use as a cooling fluid in arms production and subsequently was used in fast-developing space technologies. In the 1990s, several attempts were made to sell helium stocks or to privatise the Cliffside facility, but these all ended up in shortages and sharp price rises.
In the end, a special piece of legislation, the Helium Stewardship Act was adopted, extending the operating life of the Cliffside storage site. The act also contained a provision that if a decline in helium volumes contained in the facility from 300 million cu.m. to 100 million cu.m., helium sales would be allowed only to federal consumers.
But the United States is reducing its consumption of noble gas, turning instead to less expensive alternatives. For manufacture of fibre optic cable, for instance, argon or nitrogen can be used. Argon can also be used rather than helium in welding processes, hydrogen can be used to detect leaks (though hydrogen is clearly more dangerous in being used as a gas this way) and nitrogen and hydrogen in chromatography.
Qatar, the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas, has begun to sell helium, most likely as a way to secure additional revenue from by-products. The concentration of helium in Qatari deposits does not exceed 0.1 % mole. But in producing LNG, methane turns into a liquid state at about -162 degrees Celsius. There then occurs a “garbage” concentrate of helium, hydrogen, oxygen and other gases. The recovered helium is shipped via Saudi Arabia to Dubai to the Linde, Air Liquide and Iwatani helium logistical centres. Qatar’s share of world markets, according to various estimates, ranges from 21 to 25 %.
Algeria is the third site for volumes of helium shipments on world markets. This country hosts 17 % of world reserves of helium. Most of the helium recovered from gas comes from the vast Hassi R’Mel deposit (concentration of helium – 0.17 %). Nearly all the recovered helium is sent to France, which does not use the gas itself but rather re-exports it to other countries. But helium production in Algeria is experiencing practically no growth and by 2030 will not exceed 32 million cu.m. a year.
“A star called the sun”
In the Soviet Union, helium was used mainly in space technologies and was therefore included on the list of strategic goods, with information about it kept secret.
The sole plant for producing helium – the Orenburg Helium Plant – was set up on the base of the Orenburg oil and gas condensate field. Stocks at this deposit are now exhausted and helium production at the Orenburg plant is no more than 5 million cu m. per year.
The start of production of the Chayandinskoye and Kovyktinskoye gasfields in eastern Siberia opened up the prospect of Russia becoming the new helium star on world markets. The helium content in gas at these two fields amounts to 0.2 to 0.8 % moles. Taking account of the volume of natural gas production at Chayanda and Kovykta, the volume of helium recovered will be equal to world-wide consumption levels and amount to about 180 million cu. m. per year.
“By any forecast, more than half the helium produced with gas will not be in demand on world markets in the next few years. But given that there may be no new discoveries of deposits with high helium content in Russia, it is vital to ensure we keep this valuable and unique commodity,” Natalya Kislenko wrote.
For technological reasons, a third of this gas (60 million cu. m. per year) will be sent for further refinement at the Amur gas refinery. Should there be an increase in market demand, the plant could boost its production of marketable helium to 80 million cu.m. per year.
Remaining volumes in the form of concentrate will be channelled to underground storage sites in isolated production strata at the Chayandinskoye field. The storage site can contain more than 5 billion cu.m. of helium for several decades. And that will enable Russia to remain the world leader in production of helium for some time.
The first of three phases in helium production, with a capacity of 20 million cu.m. per year was brought on stream at the Amur gas refinery in September last year. And once the plant reaches its full production capacity of 60 million cu.m. of helium, the plant will become the world leader in helium production.
Liquid helium produced in September was shipped off to countries in the Asia-Pacific region via the recently-created world’s largest helium hub. ISO containers, used for shipping liquid helium, can maintain a temperature of up to -269 C to ensure the helium is kept in a liquid state.
Given that the Amur plant recovers nitrogen at the same time, a decision was taken to use traditional cryogenic technology.
The Chayadinskoye field – In addition to helium – also contains a high percentage of light C2+ hydrocarbons and therefore a different system in recovering helium concentrate to be placed in a storage facility is used — membrane technology. This requires less capital investment and is more energy-efficient and easier to operate.
The membrane facility allows for the removal of helium in small volumes (less than 2 % of the volume of source gas) in the form of concentrate, a mixture of helium and methane. At the same time, this technology allows for producing a whole range of light hydrocarbons which may be used as raw materials for polymers and chemical production.
The principle of the operation of the membrane system is the difference in speed with which gas components pass through the membrane material. The main flow of gas moves through the membrane through a bypass with practically no loss of pressure. Target components pass through the membrane with a considerable loss of pressure. And in this instance, the flow with low pressure is helium concentrate containing 40 % moles of helium in its composition.
In accordance with the technology developed, the share of helium concentrate of the volume of raw gas does not exceed 2 %. And the presence of impurities in the form of hydrocarbons has no negative influence in the process. The helium concentrate recovered with the use of a two-stage membrane separation scheme is compressed and sent to be loaded. The gas prepared in this way, containing no more than 0.05 %moles of helium is mixed with the bypass gas (not passing through the device) and is sent to the Amur gas refinery.
The first experimental membrane device for extracting helium was built back in 2013 and tested at the Kovytkinskoye gas condensate deposit. The tests proved successful and in March 2020, the first industrial membrane device was put into service at the Chayandinskskoye field. It includes two stages of gas separation and is made up of six lines – each of which produces 5.32 billion cu.m. of natural gas per year. The membrane device is due to operate at full capacity from 2024.
The membrane device for extracting helium concentrate is truly a breakthrough in Russian innovative technology not yet used elsewhere in the world. Its successful use at the Chayandinskoye field will lead to mass production and to its expanded use at other Gazprom fields.
But the main task of the membrane device is to turn Russia into a leader in helium production at the point in time when helium will be truly in greater demand.