Saskatchewan Industry Profile

Is Helium Saskatchewan's Next Natural Resource Boom?

Helium: a misunderstood element

Helium: a misunderstood element

They say what goes up must come down.

When it comes to helium gas, that isn't exactly true. Although helium is one of the most abundant gases in the universe, little of it may be found on earth. When helium vents to open air, it rises... and doesn't stop. Helium accumulates in earth's outer atmosphere, leaching into the vacuum of space never to be seen again.

Despite its popular use in party balloons, helium is a critically important resource for a range of medical, industrial and scientific purposes. Generated by the decay of radioactive elements, earth’s remaining supply of helium is underground.

As a large net exporter of natural gas and radioactive elements, Saskatchewan is well-positioned to supply the world with helium. In fact, it may be one of the world’s largest exporters of helium by 2030. Let’s take a look at this burgeoning industry and how it may shape Saskatchewan’s industrial future!

Why is helium so important?

Helium is an inert gas with unique physical properties that make it valuable to science and industry. Because it is inert, it’s used as a shielding gas in welding and metal fabrication. Its extremely low melting point makes it an irreplaceable cooling medium for extreme cryogenic applications, such as the superconductive magnets in MRI machines.

There are other gases with similar properties that may be used as a helium replacement, though each has drawbacks that limit its adoption. Hydrogen is too reactive. Both neon and argon are expensive and difficult to extract. For the foreseeable future, helium is a critical strategic resource. Can Saskatchewan support a helium industry?

Saskatchewan is uniquely suited to helium extraction. Earthly helium is the result of radioactive decay. Featuring the world’s largest uranium deposits, Saskatchewan has plenty of radioactive material to support the generation of helium. As the third-largest Canadian producer of natural gas and second-largest oil province, Saskatchewan also has the infrastructure, workforce, and expertise to extract and refine gas.

The vast majority of helium extracted worldwide comes from natural gas deposits. Natural gas may contain a fraction of a percent of helium, which can be separated during processes. Saskatchewan’s helium potential is so high that it can support helium wells, extraction facilities focused solely on processing helium from otherwise unfit gas deposits.

Per the Saskatchewan government’s 2021 Helium Action Plan, Saskatchewan helium deposits are proven to contain up to 2% helium by volume, with some explorations revealing even higher percentages. This is many times the average concentration found in natural gas deposits, and four times the concentration required to make helium extraction financially viable.

In fact, Saskatchewan’s aggressive action plan sets a goal of achieving 10% global helium market share by 2030, up from 1% today. Not only can Saskatchewan support a helium industry; helium may become a significant economic driver for the province within the decade.

As a final note, Saskatchewan may offer the greenest solution the world’s helium demands. The province’s largest helium deposits are mostly nitrogen based. Nitrogen is not a greenhouse gas. Its extraction is far less carbon intensive than the oil and gas sector, which produces most of the world’s helium.

Saskatchewan’s helium industry today

Saskatchewan’s future might be in helium, but the industry is already thriving today. As of 2021, nine dedicated helium wells were in operation, as well as three refinement facilities. 24 more wells are in progress, with industry experts claiming that 100 active helium wells may be feasible by 2030. The economic impact of this expanding sector may account for thousands of high-paying jobs, hundreds of millions in capital investment, and billions in long-term revenue for the province and its workers.

Government investment in helium R&D

Unsurprisingly, Saskatchewan’s government recognizes the importance of helium. Their action plan outlines commitments to growing the helium industry, including:

  • Expansion of the Oil and Gas Processing Investment Incentive (OGPII) to include helium and lithium projects, providing up to $75 million in tax credits for helium R&D;
  • Comprehensive government-led reserves study, helping industry players understand the confirmed, probable, and possible helium reserves in the province;
  • Establishment of task groups such as the Helium Innovation Commercialization Working Group, a joint industry and government effort to promote made-in-Saskatchewan sector innovation
  • Collaboration with industry partners to expedite development of liquefaction facilities, so that Saskatchewan can export value-added refined liquid helium

Take advantage of emerging industry sectors with Goodman Steel

Helium is just one of several exciting sectors poised for massive growth in the province. Rare earth metals, lithium, and manufacturing to support renewable energy development are just a few of the fastest-growing industries in Saskatchewan. Goodman Steel’s all-in-one service offering, from R&D to engineering to fabrication and surface treatment, makes us an ideal partner for those looking to take advantage of industry and government investment in new economic opportunities.

We’re deeply experienced in mining, oil and gas, and manufacturing, capable of engineering and fabricating parts, tools, and structures to nearly any specification. If you need a productive, professional, and affordable partner for industrial projects, get in touch with our team today!

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