EghtesadOnline: While Qatar is meeting at least 30% of the global helium demand from the field adjoining the giant South Pars Gas Field off the Persian Gulf, Pars Oil and Gas Company, the operator of SP development projects, has done nothing to extract helium from the joint gas field, an energy expert said.
“The gas field is estimated to hold 40% of the world’s helium reserves, but lack of access to advanced technology has deprived Iran of the valuable gas,” Morteza Behrouzifar was also quoted as saying by ILNA.
Although Iran has massive helium resources, it has to meet all its needs by importing huge amounts of the odorless and non-toxic gas from Qatar, the UAE, China and Turkey, he added.
Helium extraction process starts with natural gas that is at least 0.3% helium by volume. It then undergoes a number of industrial processes that filter impurities like water, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide from the gas. The resulting gas then undergoes cryogenic processing to cool down the gas to -260 degrees centigrade and remove methane from it, resulting in a helium that is about 50% pure. It is then put through one final cooling and filtering process that leads to the helium that we see today - one that is just about 99% pure.
Behrouzifar noted that as long as cutting-edge technology to separate helium from methane is not transferred to the country and foreign firms are not willing to invest in SP, tapping into untouched helium reserves will be no more than wishful thinking.
According to the official, cryogenics, a branch of physics that deals with the production and effects of very low temperatures and is needed to produce helium, is still an underdeveloped science in Iran while the Arab neighbor has already opened its fourth helium production factory.
According to Gasworld.com, 75% of global helium consumed globally are largely limited to two locations, one of which is the South Pars Gas Field shared between Iran and Qatar. The other location is in the US.
Qatar has been extracting helium in the past four years and POGC’s only concern is to raise its natural gas output to meet domestic needs.
Unlike other industrial gases, helium cannot be harvested from atmospheric air. Helium is predominantly extracted by processing natural gas processing.
In 2012, the Oil Ministry underlined the production of helium as a top priority and commissioned Pars POGC, a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company, to implement the project.
The world's helium reserves are estimated to be 40 billion cubic meters.
In 2015, the US led the helium market in terms of production, followed by Qatar, Algeria, Russia, Poland and Australia.
Helium has a host of applications, including as a coolant in magnetic resonance imaging machines in hospitals and nuclear reactors, although its best-known commercial use is in balloons.
Behrouzifar believes that selling natural gas is not a reliable source of foreign revenues for NIOC because domestic consumption equals output. Furthermore, exports have long been overshadowed by the US sanctions and countries like Iraq, which owes NIOC $5 billion, cannot settle its unpaid debts.
Burning a valuable commodity like natural gas in homes to produce heat should be the last option because natural gas can be sent to petrochemical companies as feedstock and converted into value-added products for sale in international markets, he added.
Officials have long been trumpeting their success in South Pars as Iran has overtaken Qatar in the number of drilling rigs. Nonetheless, they seem to be oblivious to the fact that the Arab neighbor has sealed all its oil wells and is exporting gas byproducts all over the world, while Iran cannot even meet its people’s need in winter when consumption reaches 850 million cubic meters per day.
To dominate regional energy markets, Iran requires a much more dynamic diplomacy.
Establishing close diplomatic relations with neighboring states, such as Pakistan and Turkmenistan, can definitely help the country introduce its strategic commodities like natural gas and energy to overseas markets.