Where Does Helium Come From?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen (from what can be observed), yet it’s difficult to find helium in large quantities. Knowing where helium comes from and how it behaves can help you appreciate just how precious it is.
How helium is made
There are 2 principal types (isotopes) of Helium (He₃, He₄). He₄ constitutes more than 99.999% of all Helium of Earth. He₄ is a product of radioactive decay of heavy elements such as thorium (Th) and uranium (U). An Alpha particle (2 neutrons+2Protons) is ejected and immediately attracts two electrons to form Helium₄.
Where was helium first discovered?
Helium wasn’t easily discoverable as it’s a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, and a completely non-reactive gas (inert, a Noble Gas). It was first detected as an unknown yellow line in the sun’s spectrum, during a total solar eclipse in 1868 by French astronomer Pierre Janssen. Helium was named after the Greek Titan of the Sun, Helios.
English chemist, William Ramsay, then isolated the helium particle in 1895 by heating a uranium mineral which resulted in an inert gas with the same spectral line that Janssen and Lockyer saw on the earth. Ramsay received the 1904 chemistry Nobel prize for the discovery of Helium.
Where is helium found?
Helium is estimated to be 24% of the universe’s mass. Our Sun is roughly 25% helium produced by solar fusion. While abundant in the universe, on earth it makes up only 0.00052%, and is the only element than can escapes the earth’s atmosphere. As a result, it can only be found on earth when it is trapped.
So how is it trapped? When all three of these conditions are met:
- Basement rocks are rich in uranium and thorium
- The basement rocks are fractured and faulted to provide escape routes for the helium
- Porous sedimentary rocks above the basement faults are capped by an impermeable seal of shale, halite or anhydrite.
Only when these three conditions align, can helium accumulate in a porous sedimentary rock layer. The need for this combination explains why helium is difficult to come by. However, Nitrogen, natural gas, oil and among others are similarly trapped, and thus Helium can be found with trapped hyrdocarbons.
Can helium be made?
In a nutshell, no. There is no chemical way of manufacturing helium and nature’s way of accumulating helium takes millions of years.
Who produces helium?
Qatar, Russia and US have generally been the predominant producers of helium. To date, helium has been mostly an associated product of natural gas production. 30-40% of the global helium supply is shipped from Qatar through the Straits of Hormuz, and contributes significantly to the US demand. In contrast, to date, Canada, produces ~40MMcf of balloon grade helium from one source, some of which contributes to the USA’s consumption of over 4Bcf.
Imperial Helium recognizes the market potential and is specializing in the both the capture and production of helium by is tapping into the abundant opportunities which naturally abound in Western Canada.