Company has high hopes for helium-producing in Saskatchewan

In the face of a worldwide shortage of helium, one company has high expectations for what can be produced out of Saskatchewan to help meet the demand.

There's 1 helium processing plant in Sask., but drilling and producing plans may yet expand

Helium, used in everything from party balloons to MRI machines in hospitals, is in short supply globally. But one company has hopes that Saskatchewan may be a good source for the product. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

In the face of a worldwide shortage of helium, one company has high expectations for what can be produced out of Saskatchewan to help meet the demand.

"We drilled our first wells in the last couple of years and we're hoping to announce the financial decision to build our first purification plant here in the next few weeks," said North American Helium president and CEO Marlon McDougall.

Helium is generated from the decay of uranium and thorium, with the basement rocks in Saskatchewan rich in these elements, he said.

The helium migrates into sedimentary rock and gets trapped when the conditions are just right, according to McDougall.

But this takes place deeper into the ground than normal oil and gas development, and so far, only 40 wells have been drilled to this depth in all of Saskatchewan, McDougall told CBC Saskatchewan's Blue Sky.

The elements of uranium and thorium are present in Saskatchewan, giving rise to helium. While uranium mining has had a longer history in Saskatchewan, drilling for helium is in more of an exploratory phase. (CBC)

That leaves a lot of untapped potential that McDougall said his company is interested in capturing.

"We definitely see it as a growing business," he said.

Even though more helium could come online elsewhere in the world, they may prove more logistically challenging to access, making North American helium a good fit to supply the world market, he said.

Currently, there is only one helium processing plant in Saskatchewan, at Mankota, located 150 kilometres southeast of Swift Current, according to the provincial government. It says that the Weil Group Resources LLC operate that plant, and have produced over 480 million cubic feet from two wells since 2016. 

The province says it has issued 83 helium permits and 54 helium leases since the beginning of 2017 to date.

Helium has its uses

While most people think of helium as the gas pumped into balloons, it can also be used in its liquid form and used for several other needs, including medical imaging, semiconductor manufacturing, and space exploration, science and research.

As part of its drilling for helium in Saskatchewan, North American Helium has found reservoirs that are generally rich in nitrogen, composed of 98 to 99 per cent nitrogen to 0.5 to 2 per cent helium.

The helium that is extracted wouldn't be transported by pipelines, avoiding the hiccup that is currently plaguing the country's oil and gas industry, but instead would be transported by trucks, according to McDougall.  

"We've drilled eleven wells to date and we've made several discoveries," he said.

"We're looking forward to announcing our final investment decision here in the next few weeks on our first plant."

With files from CBC Saskatchewan's Blue Sky and Marie-Christine Gendreau Bouillon


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