Pulsar Helium: Committed to advancing helium projects and furthering the helium supply chain

Helium exploration and development is a nascent industry, brought into existence by a sudden and significant supply deficit that has persisted for over a decade and shows no sign of ending.

Pulsar Helium Inc (Pulsar) exists to develop its North American helium projects, with the objective of bringing stability and supply diversity to the industry.

A commodity that is little known, helium is integral to the technology of today, and the future. Its application is predominantly in computing, medical technology, and aerospace, with exciting new uses, including fusion reactors and hybrid airships. Helium’s unique properties make it irreplaceable. Such properties include being inert, non-toxic, having the lowest known boiling point (-268.9ºC), high thermal conductivity, and low solubility.

Pulsar is a private company registered in Canada that intends to list on the TSX Venture Exchange in early 2023. Pulsar has two primary helium assets in North America, the flagship Topaz project in the US (the world’s largest helium market), which is a confirmed drilled discovery with one of the world’s highest-known helium contents that flowed 10.5% helium, and the vast Tunu project in Greenland. The company’s personnel include seasoned helium explorers, managers, operators, financiers, and expert consultants assisting with commercialisation, plant design, and geoscience.

What is helium?

Helium is a naturally occurring element that cannot be synthetically produced. While being the second most abundant element in the Universe, helium is rare on Earth as it readily leaves our atmosphere once released from the subsurface. Accordingly, helium is a non-renewable resource that is highly valued for its use in advanced technological applications.

Helium is formed through the process of natural radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. When these elements decay, they release alpha particles (helium nuclei), which then become trapped in the Earth’s crust (and are not radioactive). Over time, these trapped helium atoms can become concentrated in geological reservoirs, where they can be extracted through drilling and processing (this is where Pulsar specialises).

Helium uses

The single largest application for helium is in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners for the medical industry. The liquid helium (approximately 1,700L per scanner) is used to drop the temperature sufficiently for the copper magnet to superconduct.

In aerospace, liquid helium is used as a pressure agent for cryogenic fuel tanks in space rockets. As the rocket burns fuel (liquid oxygen or hydrogen), the fuel tank is purged with liquid helium to maintain pressure. When you see a rocket on the launch pad with gas emanating from its side, it is likely that this is helium boiling at -268.9ºC.

The manufacturing of fibre optic cables utilises an all-helium environment to prevent air bubbles from being trapped in the optical fibres. Computer hard drives are also utilising helium atmosphere to allow the disk to spin more freely, and create less heat.

Market opportunity

The helium market is growing rapidly, driven by demand from a variety of industries, and, as technology continues to advance, the demand for helium is expected to increase. Some exciting potential new industries are:

  • Fusion energy may become a reality after recent (2022) success by the US National Ignition Facility
    in California. If so, then significant quantities of liquid helium will be required as a cryogenic medium and coolant;
    •    Quantum computing, using liquid helium as a coolant;
    •    Hybrid airships, such as the Airlander by Hybrid Air Vehicles, require helium for lift.

Helium price

Currently, there is no spot market for helium, and the pricing of helium is largely opaque. Transparency is, however, improving with listed helium producers starting to sell directly to the end user and announcing the contract price. Most recently, in 2022, Royal Helium entered into a three-year contract to sell helium for $450 per thousand cubic feet ($12 per litre), and Air Products is supplying 33 million litres (880 million cubic feet) of helium, and six liquid helium pumps to NASA for a total contract price of $1.07bn.

The National Helium Reserve was the previous bellwether for pricing, publishing the results of the annual helium auction (held in the years 2015-2018), with the final average auction price in 2018 is $280 per thousand cubic feet ($7.47 per litre). Since the auction ceased, the only source of helium pricing information is that published by the industry.

Primary versus secondary helium

The gases that are mixed with helium in the ground are typically methane, nitrogen, CO2, or a combination thereof. At Pulsar, the focus is on helium that is NOT associated with methane (which is a hydrocarbon and major component of natural gas/LNG), therefore where helium is the primary economic driver. This occurrence of helium is regarded as ‘primary helium’ and is important for two reasons. Firstly, because of the ability to produce carbon-neutral helium. Secondly, it enables the production of helium at a rate that satisfies demand (not indexed to natural gas production).

Primary production of helium can bring stability to a commodity that is in short supply and difficult to store/transport. Currently, most helium is produced as a by-product of natural gas and is referred to as ‘secondary helium’. While being an important source, secondary helium has no flexibility to produce additional helium when required. For example, if a secondary helium producer wishes to increase its helium output, it must in tandem produce more methane, which would necessitate increasing the production capacity of its facility, selling more natural gas, etc. In contrast, Pulsar’s primary helium is not indexed to natural gas production, therefore providing the flexibility to quickly increase supply in line with demand, bringing stability to a commodity in short supply. Pulsar aspires to become the flywheel of the global helium industry, bringing stability via the production of primary helium.

The big helium sources

The largest supplier of helium was historically the National Helium Reserve (NHR), in Texas. The NHR was established by the Federal Government in the 1920s and is a standalone reserve of refined gaseous helium that is stored in an underground geological formation. The helium contained therein is a by-product of natural gas production from gas fields in the US. From the 1950s, helium was sold to private industry and, for over 50 years, the NHR was the world’s largest helium supplier and, as a primary helium reserve, was stable and reliable. This all changed in 2013 when the NHR began to ration sales due to depletion, with the decreased output from the largest primary helium reserve having significant ramifications for global supply that are ongoing today.

The current largest supplier of helium is Qatargas in Qatar. This secondary helium source produces a third of the world’s helium, but has significant drawbacks, including:

  • Product loss on its way to market (refer to the upcoming section on helium transportation);
    • The CO2 footprint of ship transportation; and
    •    Geopolitical risks (the Qatar crisis of 2017-2021 saw Qatar’s land border, sea routes and airspace blocked by a Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates-Bahrain-Egypt alliance).

Exxon Mobil’s Shute Creek plant in Wyoming produces approximately 30% of the world’s helium. It is a secondary source of helium, processing helium-rich gas (0.6% helium) from predominantly CO2 and methane-bearing gas fields.

Gazprom’s Amur plant in Russia was commissioned in 2021 and set to supply up to 33% of the world’s helium. In January 2022, the Amur plant suffered an explosion and subsequent fire that took it offline. Soon thereafter, sanctions placed on Russia indefinitely curtailed foreign experts entering Russia to repair the Amur plant, and for helium to be exported to countries that have imposed sanctions.

Finding helium

Pulsar staff Josh Bluett and Thomas Abraham-James of Pulsar are pioneers in primary helium exploration and have made significant contributions to the field, including multiple academic publications. The successful identification of primary helium sources requires the convergence of four critical ingredients:

  • Source rock: Ancient rocks rich in uranium and thorium, such as Precambrian granites present at the Topaz and Tunu projects;
    • Migration: Helium migration paths facilitated by permeable geological features such as faults, as
    exemplified at the Tunu project where helium-rich gas surfaces within hot springs situated along fault zones;
    •    Trap: An underground reservoir where migrating helium can accumulate, which include sedimentary and volcanic rock bodies;
    •    Heat: A deep heat source that liberates helium-rich fluids from the source rock, which can accumulate within trapping structures. The Topaz site is associated with the North American Rift, while the Tunu project is linked with the Jan Mayen and Iceland mantle plumes.

Helium processing

Most industrial gases are produced via processing of the air that we breathe (atmosphere), using off-the-shelf air separation units, typically producing oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. Helium on the other hand is more strategic as the atmosphere contains very low levels (0.0005%) and is instead sourced from the ground where concentrations in certain locations are higher (such as Pulsar’s Topaz project with 10.5% helium). A steady supply of helium is therefore the foundation of any industrial gas supplier.

For Pulsar’s projects, helium would come to surface via conventional drilling techniques (no fracking). To produce a pure liquid helium product (99.99% pure), the crude gas would then pass through one, or a combination of three, processing routes:

  • Membrane separation: High-pressure membranes that either concentrate or purify helium through
    selective diffusion;
    •    Pressure (or temperature) swing adsorption:
    Uses temperature or pressure to cause selective adsorption of different-sized gas molecules; and
    •    Cryogenic separation: Uses low temperatures to cause different gases to condense off as a liquid in a fractionation tower.

Helium transportation

Bulk liquid helium is transported in specially designed 40ft (12.2m) long containers referred to as ISO UN portable tanks. These tanks are equipped with heat insulation, pressure control systems, and safety valves to maintain the extremely low temperatures of liquid helium (< -268.9°C) and prevent any releases. The tanks are transported by truck, or by container ship for longer distances. The typical payload for such a tank is 41,000L of helium and a holding time of 45 days until product loss occurs.

The 45-day holding time is immaterial for Pulsar as the Topaz project in Minnesota (US) is within a two-day drive of any of the 48 contiguous states in the US. The Tunu project in Greenland would be an export commodity, with a shipping time of four days to Denmark (EU) and nine days to the US.

Pulsar Helium Inc.

Pulsar Helium Inc. is registered in British Columbia (Canada) and is a dedicated primary helium developer, with primary helium assets in the US and Greenland.

Our core values are:

  • Trustworthiness: We want to be regarded as the helium company of choice;
    • Integrity: To do as we say, and more;
    •    Sustainability: Being a primary helium company, we have the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of helium;
    •    Collaboration: Supporting businesses that share our values, as we are just one cog in the machine;
    •    Innovation: Primary helium is a new industry that
    can benefit from adopting the latest technology on offer.

Directors and management

We enjoy what we do, and see the significant opportunity that lies ahead for Pulsar. Our directors and management brought this company from concept to where it is today, with an intimate knowledge of the business and stake in the outcome. For all these reasons, we are determined to make Pulsar a success and the helium company of choice.

Our personnel include seasoned helium professionals specialising in the fields of geology, operations, production, finance, compliance, and public relations. Where we have gaps in expertise, we have engaged expert consultants, including personnel from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the Edelgas Group.

For more information, we encourage you to look at the Pulsar website which contains links to each manager and director’s LinkedIn profile.

Topaz Helium Project, US

One of the highest-grade helium occurrences ever drilled, the Topaz Helium Project flows a helium concentration of up to 10.5%, associated with only trace hydrocarbons. Topaz is located in the state of Minnesota and owned 100% by Pulsar, via its wholly owned subsidiary companies.

Helium project

The Topaz project was discovered by accident in 2011 when an exploration company drilled for nickel, but instead intercepted the previously unknown high-helium content gas. Two samples of the gas were sent for analysis, to a commercial laboratory and the University of Toronto, both of which corroborated the 10.5% helium content.

Prior to sealing off, the well was open for four days and venting gas with no observed decline in pressure. Rough field measurements reported gas velocity of 150km/hr, and shut-in surface pressure of 13,000 hPa.

When the gas was deemed safe and non-combustible, the well was sealed off and abandoned. The team at Pulsar then took control of the discovery area after a lengthy process to obtain what might be the first gas lease in Minnesota.

The Topaz Project is located on private mineral rights for which Pulsar has an exclusive lease, in conjunction with additional prospective ground. Further applications have been submitted with the federal and state governments for proximal areas of interest.

The short-term work programme for 2023 is to drill an appraisal well within 20m of the 2011 discovery well and carry out down-hole testing to determine the characteristics of the helium-bearing reservoir. The task is then to fast-track the discovery toward a feasibility study to determine whether Topaz can become a commercially viable helium producer.

The Topaz Project is strategically located within the US – the world’s largest market for helium. The project itself is in Minnesota, which has significant existing infrastructure, including nearby power and access roads. Therefore, the key requirements for production and distribution within the US are already in place.

The geology of the discovery area is within the Mid-Continent Rift and includes some of the oldest rocks in North America, suggesting excellent helium source rock. The stable tectonic conditions prevailing over the last billion years in the Topaz area may have allowed significant helium volumes to accumulate. Extensive desktop research has shown other helium occurrences (up to 2% helium) within a 150km radius of Topaz that are also under evaluation.

Tunu Helium Project, Greenland

Pulsar is the first mover for helium in Greenland, receiving the only license of its kind that gives exclusive rights for the exploration of helium, hydrogen and all other minerals excluding hydrocarbons and radioactive elements. A large land position has been established, covering an area of 2,772km².

The Tunu project is located on the east coast of Greenland, which is Europe-facing and is minimal shipping distance to continental Europe and the US. It is serviced by an international airport, and nearby to the settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit.

All of the requisite geological hallmarks for a helium occurrence are present within the project area. Gas migration is evident, with abundant hot springs of which two have been sampled, containing up to 0.8% helium with only trace hydrocarbons. The project area has some of the oldest rocks on the planet, which are excellent helium sources, and there are nearby heat sources from the Jan Mayen and Iceland hotspots.

The upcoming 2023 work programme is designed to image potential helium-trapping structures via airborne geophysical data acquisition and further sampling of gas seepages.

From the President and CEO

Pulsar is applying to be listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, and drill an appraisal well at our Topaz project in Minnesota, in 2023 – it will be a busy and exciting year. If you would like to be kept informed with our progress or join us, please get in touch via our website https://pulsarhelium.com or email connect@pulsarhelium.com.

Please note, this article will also appear in the thirteenth edition of our quarterly publication.

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Contributor Details

Thomas Abraham-James

President & CEO
Pulsar Helium Inc.
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