Helium: An Unnatural Natural Gas
Helium occurs in commercially extractable quantities only in natural gas, and the finding of natural gas is exclusively within the province of the petroleum geologist. Thus if adequate supplies of this remarkable element are to be available in the future, it will depend in no small measure on the success achieved by the petroleum geologist.
Until about 100 years ago, helium was not even known to exist. It remained a laboratory curiosity for a half century after its discovery, and for the period between WW I and WW II was used primarily as a lifting gas. This is an almost insignificant use today. Even though helium does not itself release energy, as does natural gas, it is an indispensable component of massive energy systems--space-vehicle boosters and atomic power plants. It also is used commercially in the welding of light metals, in meteorology, aerodynamics, leak detection, scientific research, semiconductor manufacture, analytical chemistry, medicine, and in an exciting new field, cryogenics--the field of extremely low temperatures.
Helium is cooled sufficiently to cause it to be converted to liquid at a temperature only 4°C above absolute zero. At such temperatures remarkable phenomena occur in many substances, leading to applications of great significance. One of the most intriguing is superconductivity, a condition exhibited by certain metals and alloys. When cooled to liquid-helium temperatures, these substances will conduct an electric current without any resistance. Superconductivity makes possible the construction of electronic switches of amazing speed, of the order of billionths of a second, and miniaturized computers for space-travel guidance and control. It will make possible the production of energy by thermonuclear fusion. The market for liquid helium for applications such as these has risen spe tacularly--more than 1,000% in the last 5 years.
The processing of helium--first, its extraction from natural gas and second, its liquefaction--makes use of the most advanced low-temperature techniques.
Today helium gas is still found where the markets are not. This fact is true not only on a national scale, but also internationally, and it has resulted in the development of highly efficient product-transportation and distribution systems, achieved via breakthroughs in hardware manufacture and marketing logistics.
The burgeoning helium industry will continue to depend on the petroleum geologist for an ever-increasing supply of its raw material: helium-bearing natural gas. It is hoped that the geologist will be able to find such additional gas in much more geographically favorable locations in the future than in the past.
AAPG Search and Discovery Article #91051©2012 AAPG Rocky Mountain Section Meeting, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 23-26 February 1969