Qatar has become the world’s largest exporter and second largest producer of helium with a second plant becoming operational at Ras Laffan with a production capacity of 1.3bn cubic feet a year.
With a combined annual production of 2bn cubic feet, the two world-scale plants will meet about 25% of global demand for liquid helium.
The helium liquefier, co-owned by Qatargas and RasGas, will be operated by the latter.
Helium 2 plant is twice the size of the first liquefier which began operations in 2005.
Under a long-term agreement with RasGas and Qatargas, Air Liquide will purchase 50% of the helium volumes produced by this new unit and the existing one.
Besides Air Liquide, off-take agreements have also been signed with Iwatani Corporation and Linde Gases, a Linde Group division in 2010.
Linde Gases will receive 30% and the Iwatani Corporation 20% of the annual production up to 2032.
This start-up marks the next step toward helium market stability. World demand for helium has remained robust in the last 10 years, while helium is scarce worldwide.
Helium plays a critical role in a wide array of products. Key uses include Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, semiconductors, fibre optic cable, space exploration, scientific research, air-bag production and professional hyperbaric diving.
On the “milestone achievement”, HE the Minister of Energy and Industry Dr Mohamed bin Saleh al-Sada said that it was a testament of “Qatar’s strategy of creating added value by sound development and maximum utilisation” of its natural resources.
“With the commencement of production at our Helium 2 plant, which is the world’s largest helium refining facility, we are today the largest exporter and the second largest producer of helium in the world,” al-Sada said.
RasGas chief executive officer Hamad Rashid al-Mohannadi, also Qatar Petroleum vice-chairman, said: “The Helium 2 plant, which broke ground in May 2010, is the second helium project to be built in Qatar, and we are very pleased to report that in more than 5mn man hours worked to complete this project, we have maintained a lost time incident rate (LTIR) of zero.
“Achieving such a remarkable safety milestone is a clear testimony to RasGas’ commitment to create and maintain a safe work environment in a complex construction project that involved thousands of contractors and employees.”
Formed over billions of years, helium is often trapped in deposits of natural gas making it expensive to extract, purify and make available for commercial use.
The design and construction of the helium purification and liquefaction plant incorporated highly complex and advanced technology that will capture, extract and refine crude helium from six existing LNG processing trains, including RasGas Trains 6 and 7 and Qatargas Trains 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Future growth in consumption of helium is expected to be driven by demand from electronic manufacturers in Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan.
Since 2000, the world demand for helium has increased by around 20%.
The bulk of this increasing demand can be met from Qatar’s gigantic North Field for many years.