Producing helium from natural gas

Helium is an inert gas; it is colorless, tasteless and odorless. Thanks to its unique properties, this substance is widely used in various areas of science and technology.

Lockyer named the element helium, of the Greek word helios – the Sun. Lockyer believed that the element he discovered was a metal. That is why the Latin term for the substance has this – “um” ending typically used to denote metals.

Denizen of the Sun

Helium was first discovered in the atmosphere of the Sun. It happened in 1868 as the French astronomer Pierre Jules Janssen and the British astronomer Joseph Norman Lockyer did their research.

During a solar eclipse as they studied the light radiated by the Sun and used the method of spectroscopy (where the radiated light was split with a glass prism into lines of different colors), they discovered a new previously unknown line of bright yellow color, could not be associated with any of the already known elements.

Only second to hydrogen

Helium is the second most common element in the Universe after hydrogen. And yet this substance is relatively scarce on Earth. The first to isolate this substance was Scottish chemical scientist William Ramsey who produced it from cleveite – a radioactive mineral in 1895.

Helium is mostly extracted from natural gas. In Russia helium is produced exclusively by one company – the Orenburg Gas Processing Plant (GPP) that is a part of Gazprom dobycha Orenburg.

The Orenburg oil and gas condensate field (OGCF) is fairly poor in helium: the volume fraction of this substance in the gas is only up to 0.055 per cent. Rich fields can contain more than 0.5 per cent of helium, while the standard content rate is 0.1–0.5 per cent. All gas fields with helium content under 0.1 per cent are qualified as poor fields.

Reserves and production

The global reserves of helium are known to be approximately 41 billion cubic meters. Most of them lie in Qatar, Algeria, the USA and Russia. Annual global production of helium is about 175 million cubic meters, and the USA remains the largest producer. Recently, Russia has been producing only about 5 million cubic meters of helium every year. The reason is concentration of major Russia’s helium reserves in the fields of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, where development is just beginning. Meanwhile, the content of helium in those fields is very high, being 0.2–0.8 per cent.

Reserves and production:

There are two stages in isolation of helium from natural gas. At stage one, the process of low-temperature condensation produces helium concentrate. The volume share of the target substance is at least 80 per cent in the product.

Further on, helium concentrate gets cleaned from impurities – methane, nitrogen, hydrogen, neon and argon.

Flying a big balloon...

Helium is also used to treat respiratory malfunctions such as bronchial asthma and other diseases. Air enriched with helium has a lower density and thus it is easier to breathe in.

Helium is also known to have a special effect on the voice cords. Inhaling small quantities of this gas makes the voice cords contract, and the person sounds like a cartoon character.

Helium is a unique product. It has very low boiling point (?268.94 °С), high thermal conductivity and electric conductivity. Thanks to its properties, helium is widely used in a range of industries, such as aviation, aerospace, electronics, nuclear power, and healthcare.

Helium is used to prepare breathing mixes, including making the micro atmosphere of manned spaceships, deep-sea diving, and treating asthma, and also filling airships and balloons. Helium is not toxic and minor quantities inhaled together with air are absolutely harmless.

Used in air mixes for deep water diving, this substance helps to prevent the caisson disease. As we know, the content of nitrogen dissolved in the diver’s blood increases in proportion to depth. During the back trip, surplus nitrogen gets unbound. If rising is abrupt, escape of surplus nitrogen occurs very fast and as a result blood seems to boil: small bubbles of nitrogen escape as an air from a freshly opened bottle of champagne. The use of less soluble helium in the air mixes almost totally prevents such emergencies.

Helium is also used to treat respiratory malfunctions such as bronchial asthma and other diseases. Air enriched with helium has a lower density and thus it is easier to breathe in.

The unique features of this substance have also been used in metallurgy to create a protective environment for metal welding and in nuclear power production where helium is used as the heat medium in some types of nuclear reactors.

Inevitable shortages

Experts forecast consumption of helium to continue growing on a global scale. Gazprom VNIIGAZ estimates that by 2030 consumption of helium can reach 238–312 million cubic meters, while production will be lagging behind act 213–238 million cubic meters. This means that the world will be confronted with the deficit of helium. Production will need to be increased considerably in order to meet the shortage.

In Russia new major helium production centers can be created in the future on a basis of the natural gas fields as Kovykta and Chayanda, as well as other deposits in Eastern Siberia and the Far East. Therefore, Russia has all the makings to become a major helium producer and supplier on the global market.