Colorado helium plant production ramping up

CHEYENNE WELLS — Out on Colorado’s southeastern plains, not far away from the Kansas state line, there’s an unusual type of plant that processes a pure helpful useful resource current in restricted portions globally and produces one factor the world truly can’t get enough of.

The Ladder Creek plant merely west of Cheyenne Wells is one in all a handful of internet sites that extracts helium from pure gasoline after an involved course of that freezes it, turns helium gasoline proper right into a liquid and funnels it into prepared tanker vans. Helium may make most people think about social gathering balloons, nonetheless, birthdays and election night celebrations aren’t the rationales why the worth of helium has larger than doubled over the previous 18 months or so.

And it’s not the rationale Durell Johnson decided to buy the plant that he helped design and assemble in 1997 whereas working for Union Pacific Resources. His agency, Tumbleweed Midstream, acquired the plant in December from Denver-based DCP Midstream.

“I spent pretty much my entire career, 35 years, in the natural gas business,” talked about Johnson, a Texas native. “When I look back, this was the most fun time of my career, building this helium plant. From an engineering standpoint, helium is just really cool.”

It moreover briefly gives correct now. Helium is a product of radioactive decay throughout the coronary heart of the Earth that may get trapped with pure gasoline as a result of it migrates up, Johnson talked about. However, not all pure gasoline incorporates helium, at least not in extreme enough concentrations to make extracting it economically worthwhile.

“It’s not uncommon to find very small concentrations, but you really need to be up in the half percent or so range to where it really starts affecting the bottom line,” Johnson talked about. “The gas here in Cheyenne County is phenomenal. Across the country, it goes anywhere from 1.5% to 5 or 6% helium.”

That’s good news for Johnson, the employees on the Ladder Creek plant and the native financial system. Helium prices, identical to the element itself in gaseous sort, have been rising. Natural gasoline prices are about $2 per thousand cubic ft correct now, Johnson talked about.

“Helium can easily be $200 or more” per thousand cubic ft, Johnson talked about. “It’s in such demand that every molecule of it is spoken for.”

A run on social gathering balloons isn’t behind the demand. The best use of helium, about 24%, is in magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machines. Liquid helium is the one substance chilly enough — about minus 458 ranges Fahrenheit — to chill out the superconductive magnets throughout the machine so pictures of the physique are perhaps produced.

Colorado helium plant production ramping up

Liquid helium may also be utilized in computer chip manufacturing; welding; fiber optics; to relax the liquid oxygen and hydrogen that vitality space vehicles; and to mix with the oxygen utilized by deep-sea divers to cease the “bends,” or decompression sickness, attributable to the quick launch of nitrogen gasoline from the bloodstream.

All crucial capabilities, which make the outlet in the present an issue. Johnson talked about the world is using roughly 6.6 billion cubic ft of helium yearly, nonetheless, the supplier is barely about 5.9 billion cubic ft. He talked about a federal helium reserve in Texas that is perhaps tapped to help cowl the shortfall.

“We’re two years into a shortage and it’s really more of a supply-driven shortage than a demand-driven shortage,” talked about Phil Kornbluth, President of Kornbluth Helium Consulting in Bridgewater, N.J.

Some of the world’s helium sources have been in decline, Kornbluth talked about, most notably the Bureau of Land Management’s helium storage reservoir near Amarillo, Texas. A pipeline from the federal reservoir runs by Oklahoma to Kansas and connects to 4 helium processing crops. The federal authorities are throughout the technique of privatizing its helium property and the crops’ production has dropped.

“So, cumulatively, over a period of quite a few years, about 2 billion cubic feet of capacity has been lost in the system that’s connected to the BLM pipeline,” Kornbluth talked about.

While there’s little secure info “to grab hold of in the helium business,” Kornbluth talked about most people think about the demand for the helpful useful resource probably peaked in 2011. Since then, the market has a talented one improve in the present and extended shortages.

There are solely 14 crops on the earth that course of helium and 7 of those are throughout the U.S. In actuality, the U.S. accounts for 51% of the world’s present, adopted by Qatar at 33%, Algeria at 11%, Russia at 3% and Australia at 2%.

New sources of the substance are in progress and are anticipated to hit the market throughout the subsequent few years, Kornbluth talked about. A plant in Algeria is being developed and new duties are anticipated in Qatar and Russia.

“The industry consensus is that the shortage will end in mid-2021,” Kornbluth talked about.

He sees loads of options for the Ladder Creek plant to develop its “tolling” operation, which takes one different agency’s crude helium, purifies it and turns it into the final word liquid product. Kornbluth as quickly as labored for an organization that was one among many distinctive shoppers of the plant’s helium.

Hyoung ChangThe Ladder Creek Helium Plant in Cheyenne Wells is pictured on Feb. 6, 2020.

Johnson sees nothing nonetheless various at Ladder Creek. There’s the monetary various and being on the vanguard of a market with worldwide implications.

For Johnson, there’s moreover the prospect to adjust to by on an imaginative and prescient he helped sort larger than 20 years previously. He was working for Union Pacific Resources in 1996 when the geologists talked in regards to the helium they’ve been discovering as the company drilled for oil in Cheyenne County.

“We had just thrown out the idea that, ‘Hey, do you think there’s enough gas out there to build a helium plant?’ I was in that conference room in the meeting,” Johnson talked about. “We, of course, chased it down and sure enough, there was a huge reservoir here, so we built the plant.”

Johnson was the enterprise supervisor. He oversaw the design work and improvement and employed and educated the employees. He stayed on until 1999 when the company’s property has been acquired by Anadarko and Duke Energy. Johnson returned to Texas and headed engineering and operations for fairly a number of pure gasoline firms.

But Johnson and his family saved in touch with mates they made in Cheyenne Wells. And by the years, Johnson saved tabs on Ladder Creek. He formed Tumbleweed Midstream to amass the plant. Johnson, the company CEO, declined to disclose the financial phrases.

During the newest tour of the positioning, which contains 36 acres of land, the fun amongst employees in regards to the flip of events was virtually as loud as a result of the tools working the pure gasoline and its elements — methane, nitrogen, helium — by the processing.

“Oh my gosh, I am so excited about this. I had worked with Durell (Johnson) when we built this plant and I enjoyed working with him then,” talked about Tami Brown, who has labored in administration since Ladder Creek began operations in 1997.

Since then, production had decreased and the plant was working “with a skeletal crew,” Brown talked about.

“DCP (Midstream) had planned on closing this, shutting us down,” Brown talked about. “A lot of us could’ve been out of jobs.”

Cheyenne County Commissioner Ron Smith is totally happy that as an alternative choice to closing, Ladder Creek is rising. Johnson has added 9 employees since December, rising the workforce to 27.

“It’s a big boost for the economy,” Smith talked about. “I was on the fire department when they built the plant out there. Former Gov. Roy Romer came down and set off the grand opening. It was big for us.”

Smith owns an ironmongery retailer in Cheyenne Wells. He talked about the helium plant supported his enterprise when it was beneath improvement and nonetheless does.

The plant is producing at about 15% of its functionality, Johnson talked about. The plant can take care of processing about 40 million cubic ft of pure gasoline a day from the wells throughout the house. It can produce up to 1.5 million cubic ft of helium a day.

Johnson talked about the plant would possibly end up doubling its production cost throughout the subsequent two to 3 months.

Hyoung ChangDurell Johnson, CEO of Tumbleweed Midstream, is pictured on the Ladder Creek Helium Plant in Cheyenne Wells on Feb. 6, 2020.

The plant has contracts to buy pure gasoline from about 20 firms producing throughout the house. Johnson talked about the wells that don’t require fracking on account of the geology is further permeable than in several elements of Colorado. The Ladder Creek system incorporates 190 miles of interstate pipeline, 420 miles of pure gasoline gathering traces and 10 compressor stations.

Laine Mitchel, a 10-year Ladder Creek employee, walks by the grounds and contained within the processing plant, mentioning the place the pure gasoline enters what’s often known as a cold area, 100-foot-tall building exterior and the place the extraction of helium begins.

Through a sequence of chilling and compression and enlargement cycles, propane, butane, methane are condensed and separated out, leaving nitrogen and helium. Finally, the nitrogen is eradicated. The helium is processed to the aim of being 99.999% pure, is modified into liquid and funneled to a tanker that comes with a liquid nitrogen shell and a vacuum. Those defend the liquid helium to take care of it frigid and forestall it from reverting once more to its gaseous sort.

Air Liquide, a French agency that buys the plant’s helium, then picks up its truck and distributes the product.

Helium is second-most ample element throughout the universe, behind hydrogen, nonetheless, is approach further scarce on earth. Helium has the underside boiling stage of any element and is the second-lightest, subsequent to hydrogen. It will revert once more to gasoline if steps aren’t taken to stop it, Johnson talked about. It’s less complicated and further economical to ship liquid helium than helium gasoline, he talked about. It would take seven trailers of helium gasoline to maneuver the equal of 1 trailer of liquid helium. Many purchasers want helium in its liquid sort.

Some of the pure gasoline is purchased to Colorado Interstate Gas. The pure gasoline liquids, propane, and butane are shipped by way of the pipeline to a plant in Kansas. Ladder Creek makes use of residual pure gasoline to vitality the plant.

Johnson has extreme hopes for Ladder Creek. He talked about there are solely two totally different helium crops throughout the nation that will do what he does: one in Wyoming and one in Utah. He may also be assured that there’s a great deal of helium throughout the house to take care of the plant buzzing for a really very long time.

“When we were with (Union Pacific Resources), it was a $100 million investment back in 1997. To justify that we had to be comfortable that there was enough resource here to keep that plant full for 30 years,” Johnson talked about.

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