Helium Exploration and Production

Helium cannot be artificially produced ( see: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/scientists-found-huge-reservoir-much-needed-helium-180959592/ ) so it must be pried from the earth through exploration and production. For years, Helium has be extracted from the production of Natural Gas. Now exploration is finding helium reserves in varying degrees of saturation, through seismic and drilling.

This article from Geology.Com identifies the process of extracting helium from natural gas. (https://geology.com/articles/helium/ )

Helium: A byproduct of the natural gas industry

Helium’s unique properties make it the perfect gas for many important applications

Article by:  Hobart M. King, PhD, RPG



Helium blimp: Most people have heard of helium being used as a lifting gas for weather balloons, blimps, and party balloons. These are very minor uses of helium. The use that consumes more helium than any other is cooling the magnets in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines in medical facilities. Goodyear blimp photo by Derek Jensen.

What is Helium?

Helium is a chemical element and a colorless, odorless, tasteless, inert gas. It has the smallest atomic radius of any element and the second-lowest atomic weight. It is lighter than air.

Most people know that helium is used as a lifting gas in blimps and party balloons, but they can’t name another way in which it is used. The number one use of helium is as a cooling gas for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in medical facilities. Other important uses of helium include: a protective gas for welding, an inert gas for controlled atmosphere manufacturing, a fugitive gas used for leak detection, and a low-viscosity gas for pressurized breathing mixtures.

Where Does Helium Come From?

Very little helium is present in Earth’s atmosphere. It is such a light element that Earth’s gravity cannot hold it. When present at Earth’s surface, unconfined helium immediately begins rising until it escapes the planet. That’s why party balloons rise!

The helium that is produced commercially is obtained from the ground. Some natural gas fields have enough helium mingled with the gas that it can be extracted at an economical cost. A few fields in the United States contain over 7% helium by volume. Companies that drill for natural gas in these areas produce the natural gas, process it and remove the helium as a byproduct.



Helium-bearing natural gas deposits: Deposit model for helium-bearing natural gas fields in the United States. Helium is produced by the decay of uranium and thorium in granitoid basement rocks. The liberated helium is buoyant and moves toward the surface in porosity associated with basement faults. The helium then moves upward through porous sedimentary cover until it is trapped with natural gas under beds of anhydrite or salt. These are the only laterally-persistent rock types that are able to trap and contain the tiny, buoyant helium atoms. This geological situation only occurs at a few locations in the world and is why rich helium accumulations are rare.

Related: A New Use of Helium – Hard Drives

Why is Helium in Some Natural Gas?

Most of the helium that is removed from natural gas is thought to form from radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in granitoid rocks of Earth’s continental crust. As a very light gas, it is buoyant and seeks to move upward as soon as it forms.

The richest helium accumulations are found where three conditions exist: 1) granitoid basement rocks are rich in uranium and thorium; 2) the basement rocks are fractured and faulted to provide escape paths for the helium; and, 3) porous sedimentary rocksabove the basement faults are capped an impermeable seal of halite or anhydrite. When all three of these conditions are met, helium might accumulate in the porous sedimentary rock layer.

Helium has the smallest atomic radius of any element, about 0.2 nanometers. So, when it forms and starts moving upward, it can fit through very small pore spaces within the rocks.  Halite and anhydrite are the only sedimentary rocks that can block the upward migration of helium atoms. Shales that have their pore spaces plugged with abundant organic materials (kerogen) sometimes serve as a less effective barrier.

This article on North American Helium’s website describes the process of finding and producing Helium. Check it out here …. https://nahelium.com/about-helium/helium-production/ Watch this page for future updates about Helium production.

By HeliumZone Staff and citations