Helium liquefaction facility could help ensure the security of Canada’s health sector

By Erin Matthews, Saskatchewan Research Council

Critical minerals provide the materials needed for nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives and are becoming increasingly important for growing a prosperous future. Canada’s recently announced Critical Minerals List highlights 31 minerals and metals that are crucial for green energy, technology, transportation and health care. Saskatchewan’s own Critical Minerals Strategy focuses on the critical minerals found in the province including potash, uranium and rare earth elements. The strategy also has a strong focus on helium, a unique addition to this list.

A colourless gas that’s lighter than air, helium is the only critical mineral that isn’t truly a mineral. It is a commodity with rising demand in a global shortage.

While gaseous helium is mostly known for its use in party balloons, it is a critical substance that rarely has a substitute in both industry and health care. When mixed with oxygen, helium can be used to help people with asthma and other respiratory ailments breathe easier. In the manufacturing industry, helium is often used as a shielding gas in arc welding and in the production of semiconductors.

When cooled down to -269 degrees Celsius, helium transforms into a liquid with superior cooling properties. Liquid helium is essential for MRI machines to function in running scans, allowing for crisp, clear images needed for diagnostics. Synchrotrons and particle colliders – like the Large Haldon Collider – require helium to maintain stable temperatures needed for experiments.

Helium is even used as a coolant in certain types of nuclear reactors.

While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is one of the rarest on Earth. With Canada’s most significant helium reserves found in southwestern Saskatchewan, the province has the potential to be a leader in helium production.

Producing helium on the Canadian prairies

While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is one of the rarest on Earth. With Canada’s most significant helium reserves found in southwestern Saskatchewan, the province has the potential to be a leader in helium production.

Naturally found in deposits of natural gas, helium was first discovered in Saskatchewan during hydrocarbon exploration in the 1940s. The province’s first facility for helium production was later commissioned in the early 1960s.

In 2021, the Government of Saskatchewan released their plans to grow the province’s helium industry with the goal of producing 10 per cent of the world’s helium by 2030. On behalf of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Energy and Resources, the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) investigated the potential of building a helium liquification hub in the province. This hub would be the first industrial-sized helium liquefaction facility in Canada and allow Saskatchewan to contribute towards ensuring the security of Canada’s health sector.

Led by SRC’s process development team – a group of client-focused chemical and electrical engineers, geologists and chemists – the study consulted stakeholders, examined the market, assessed environmental considerations and identified key infrastructure. The full report is available online.

Three scenarios for Saskatchewan’s helium liquefaction hub

The report concluded that building a helium liquefaction facility or a hub of several facilities would allow Saskatchewan to maximize the full value of this critical resource.

“A helium liquefaction plant could be instrumental in adding value to the province’s helium industry,” said Erica Emery, a senior research engineer on SRC’s process development team.

The report identified several options for expansion.

A liquefaction hub wouldn’t need to be located directly at production sites, but building a facility near to current or future sites would be ideal as transporting helium carries significant challenges. Weight restrictions limit the use of secondary highways, so designing liquefaction facilities with direct access to primary roads is key to establishing a successful helium hub.

Saskatchewan will need to ramp up production of helium to reach the goal of providing 10 per cent of global demand. SRC found that a single large-scale facility capable of liquefying 700 million cubic feet per year or 370 kilograms per hour of helium is one way to achieve this – providing the province with a lique­faction process model and an overview of challenges, potential solutions and the cost of a large-scale facility.

A mid-sized facility, capable of liquefying enough helium to reach half of the 2030 production goal was also proposed in the report. This facility would be able to liquefy 350 mmcf/y or 190kg/h of helium with a suggested location near Swift Current – the home of several historic helium wells. The nearby village of Mankota (150 km south of Swift Current) is currently home to a helium production facility.

Alternatively, SRC’s process development team offered a third option – the creation of a liquefaction hub consisting of two liquefiers that could be paired in a single location or split into two locations across Saskatchewan.

“If the province were to support two liquefiers there’s no reason they would need to be built at the same time,” said Emery. “In fact, there are many advantages to building them in a stage-gated fashion.”

The economic return of a large-scale facility was more attractive, but building two liquefiers in separate stages had several advantages for the province, including the ability to grow as the market develops and the ability to spread out capital expenditures over longer periods of time.

Providing unique support for industry and government clients

SRC’s process development team stands out from other business units across SRC with their unique ability to offer a wide range of services that tackle challenges faced by Saskatchewan’s key economic sectors.

“SRC has a long history of supporting innovation through research and technological advancement and the process development group helps our clients achieve economic and environmental solutions,” said Emery.

The group’s initial focus was on increasing the value of heavy oil by developing new processing techniques, which later expanded to biofuel, kaolin clay resources and alternative energy storage.

With over 40 years of expertise in the energy industry and decades of providing simulation and technoeconomic analyses, SRC’s process development team has the expertise needed to assist Saskatchewan’s growing helium industry.