Australia's Helium Future

Low-cost Helium Production and Recovery from Australia's Natural Gas

Background

The global helium market is worth about AUD$1.4 billion, but Australia has only captured a very small share of it. Australia is currently ranked 4th helium producer in the world (2015 data via Geoscience paper), but this ranking is misleading. USA is leader with 56% global production. 2nd is Qatar at 31%, 3rd Algeria at 6%, then 4th Australia with 3%. After Bayu-Undan gas runs out and swaps to Barossa it is 0%.

Australia has a significant opportunity to be a leading supplier of Helium, which is critical to many applications across multiple sectors of the economy, from medical to defence. The global and domestic demand for this strategic commodity continues to increase, and the world’s supply capacity is now falling behind, resulting in shortages and cost escalation.

Helium production is challenging because of the high capital and operating costs associated with conventional recovery technologies. Currently, the only commercially viable source of helium is natural gas, with production mostly occurring via LNG plants with extended deep cryogenic processing. While Australia is the world’s largest LNG exporter, it has only one helium recovery plant and contributes merely 2.6% to global production.

Do you know?

  • Australia currently burns all its deep gas wellhead produced helium.
  • Other identified higher content onshore Australia gas wells are shut-in and remain unexploited.
  • Helium has recently become an essential and strategic gas.
  • Last sale of commercial helium in the USA was September 2019.
  • Helium powers/ cools MRI's medical scanners. No helium equals no MRI scanning capability. MRI scanning is an essential tool in today's medicine.
  • Helium is used to leak test submarines. Australia operates 6 Collins-class submarines with 2 currently in deep maintenance and upgrade. Australia is building a new fleet of 12 submarines ex-Adelaide. Where do we source the helium?
  • Australia has only one source of produced helium at the Darwin LNG facility. But this facility will be decommissioned shortly after the Bayu-Undan gas source is changed to Barossa.
  • Helium is an essential gas if space exploration is undertaken. Rocket engines do not work without Helium. May 2018 the Australian Government announced the launch of the Australia Space Agency. No helium, no rocket motors, no space.

Australia is currently ranked 4th helium producer in the world (2015 data via Geoscience paper[1]), but this ranking is misleading. USA is leader with 56% global production. 2nd is Qatar at 31%, 3rd Algeria at 6%, then 4th Australia with 3%. After Bayu-Undan gas runs out and swaps to Barossa it is 0%.

[1] Geoscience Australia APPEA Paper 2018 209-237. C J Boreham et al ‘Helium in the Australian Liquified Natural Gas Economy’

About the project

This project aims to lower the cost barriers associated with helium production and add value to the gas industry by recovering the otherwise elusive helium in LNG production. To achieve this, the project will develop and demonstrate non-cryogenic technologies for helium recovery that can potentially cut the production cost by 50% when compared to current approaches based on deep cryogenic processing.

This project will deliver an Australian researched, designed & fitted-out pilot facility for industrial-scale demonstration of new adsorption-based technologies for helium recovery. This will enable the translation of novel helium-selective adsorbent materials and process technology from the laboratory into Australian-owned industry, as well as facilitate the demonstration of new, non-cryogenic process cycles for helium recovery.

Impact

Project success has the potential to kick start Australia’s journey to accessing/unlocking current and yet to be discovered deep gas opportunity to capture the rare and essential gas helium.

Producing helium from LNG plants at a lower cost than currently achievable will give Australia an opportunity to produce more helium and create more export revenue.

The project will boost the productivity and competitiveness of Australia’s energy resources sector by:

  • Establishing a process test-facility in Australia for industrial-scale demonstration of new helium-recovery and other unconventional gas technologies. The facility will help lower barriers to innovation in Australia's energy sector.
  • Optimising the non-cryogenic helium recovery process into a single-stage cycle.
  • Delivering more cost-effective and energy-efficient methods to Australia's gas industry that allow helium recovery from smaller reserves at lower concentrations than is currently viable.

 

  • Supporting early-career researchers, PhD and engineering students trained for roles in the energy resources sector.
  • Enabling the energy resources sector to play a larger role in the growth of Australia's defence and space industries, considering their large helium demand.
  • Developing the industry and creating new jobs in Australia's energy resources sector.

 

Project Timeframe

Start: July 2020

End: June 2022

 

Project Funding

Total Project Cost: $600,000

NERA: $300,000

Oilfield Technologies: $150,000

UWA: $150,000

Gas Capture Technologies: In-Kind

    *Funding excludes GST