Commentary – Helium: the next black diamond?

Pearl Lorentzen

On May 13, the Alberta government announced a royalty rate for helium because of “soaring helium interest.”

In the not so distant past, oil was in demand. Years earlier, coal was the hot ticket item.

Now, it might be helium.

Canada has the fifth largest helium reserve in the world, says the news release. The provincial government touts helium as a way to diversify the economy and use an untapped resource.

But is moving to another resource really diversifying the economy? The resource may dry up. Or we could end up in the same situation with helium as with oil, coal and natural gas. Alberta has lots, can extract it, but nobody wants it.

Resource extraction has been the backbone of Alberta’s economy for years. Increasing the types of resources extracted is good for the economy, but the danger is in replacing one boom-and-bust resource for another.

Back in the 1800s coal was king. Some people made a lot of money off coal. Others got the black lung and a paycheque.

Black Diamond, Coalhurst, Diamond City and other Alberta towns were named after coal.

Now, good luck finding Diamond City on a map.

In Wales, Cardiff Castle is built on the ruins of a Roman fort. The current structure looks like a medieval castle, but was mostly built with a coal fortune in the early 1800s, complete with flush toilets.

Now, no one wants to buy in coal.

Recently, natural gas hasn’t been worth much and many Alberta municipalities have lost income because of this.

However, helium is extracted from natural gas, says the Royal Society of Chemistry. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. It is in stars. On earth, there is new helium being made all the time. It is non-toxic. It is in the air, but is expensive to extract it from this source.

Helium is used in medical imaging, electronics and space exploration, says the provincial news release.

In space, says the Royal Society, helium is used to cool satellite instruments. In the Apollo space vehicles [1963 to 1972], it cooled liquid oxygen and hydrogen.

It is also used to cool superconducting magnets in MRI scanners, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer [NMR], and the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].

According to CERN, which operates LHC, LHC is the most powerful and largest particle accelerator in the world, including 27-km rings of superconducting magnets.

The most recognizable helium use is to inflate balloons, weather balloons and airships.

Helium is used in arc welding, helium-neon lasers in bar-code scanners, helium-ion microscopes, to inflate airbags, to find leaks in air-conditioning, to create a stable atmosphere for deep-sea divers and while making

At one time, hydrogen was used, but it blows up. The most famous instance is the Hindenburg, a German passenger airship, in New Jersey in 1937. fibre optics and semiconductors.

By all means, extracting helium from natural gas in Alberta makes sense, but it makes sent to also add manufacturing and research jobs connected with helium.

Alberta can’t remain a resource economy forever.

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