Helium: are there commercial resources in onshore Australia?

  • By Dr Mike Clarke, FAusIMM and Dr Duncan Seddon, FRACI

The below abstract is for a proposed webinar to be run by the AusIMM Consultants Society (ConSoc). ConSoc are currently seeking expressions of interest on the below topic; to register your interest to attend this proposed webinar please email consoc@ausimm.com.au

Helium (He) is a gaseous mineral that occurs as a constituent of some natural gas resources and is present in the atmosphere at 5·2 parts per million. It is a mono-atomic gas that is in fact an Alpha particle from the radioactive decay of Uranium and Thorium. Commercial He resources were first discovered in natural gas plays in the mid-western states of the US, and the US became the world’s principal supplier until the mid 1990s when He became ‘democratised’ with major finds being made in Algeria, Qatar, Russia, Poland, Canada and Australia. Australia produces around three per cent of the world’s He from the Bayu-Udan gas field located offshore from Darwin.

Helium is an important mineral in that it is used for achieving cryogenic temperatures below 4K as a liquid. Liquid He (LHe) is used to: produce super-conductivity that is required for MRI scans, for controlled atmospheres for electronic component manufacturing, arc welding and leak detection. In the future He will be the ‘working fluid’ for high temperature, Generation IV, nuclear power reactors. He is also used as the lifting gas in lighter-than-air aircraft and balloons.

There have been He finds in onshore Australia that are yet to be proven as reserves. These finds range from natural gas with <1 per cent He to natural gas with over six per cent He; the latter having the potential to be very rich resources.

The propose webinar will look at: exploring for He, its extraction from natural gas, its processing, its logistics and its value. Of recent note is that Qatar that has recently been producing 30 per cent of the world’s He but now has its He production embargoed. This raises the question, ‘What is the added value of Australian helium given the low sovereign risk of Australia?’

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