Company hopes to extract helium beneath Lake County in northeastern Minnesota

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ISABELLA, Minn. — A company eyeing helium extraction in northeastern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex is planning on more exploratory drilling this winter in hopes of confirming what a 2011 sample found: North America’s second-highest concentration of helium.

The so-called “appraisal borehole” will be drilled next to the hole sunk 12 years ago by a drill crew looking for copper, nickel and other metals between Cleveland-Cliffs’ Peter Mitchell Mine and Isabella.

In doing so, the crew accidentally discovered a pocket of gas 1,800 feet underground. The company, DMC USA, was a subsidiary of Duluth Metals, which would keep its focus on copper-nickel mining and become Twin Metals.

But British Columbia-based Pulsar Helium Inc., which formed in 2019 and went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange’s Venture Exchange in August 2023, heard about their finding. Most notably, that two labs confirmed the gases expelled from the drill hole contained 10.5% helium.

Tom Abraham-James, president and CEO of Pulsar, said commercial helium operations consider anything 0.3% helium or higher to be of economic interest.

“So you can just imagine 10.5% … it just seems too good to be true,” Abraham-James said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune on Monday.

Pulsar has coined it the “Topaz Project” and will have a better idea of how much helium there is after the appraisal borehole is drilled in the first quarter of 2024, Abraham-James said. He said the company has the rights to the mineral leases, and extraction could begin 18 months after findings are confirmed. The company is also working on a helium project in Greenland.

He said that if a plant were to be up and running at the Topaz Project, the infrastructure would be relatively small, and only one borehole may be needed for extraction. He said he didn’t expect it to grow beyond five boreholes and that fracking wouldn’t be used. The plant would provide approximately 10 to 20 jobs, he said.

But in a state with no oil and natural gas industry, the permitting and environmental review process specific to helium extraction does not exist.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it scheduled a meeting with Lake County officials to discuss whether local approvals apply and the agency is working with other state agencies to determine which existing rules and regulations are applicable to helium gas extraction.

“To date, we have determined that the Minnesota Department of Health has borehole safety regulations and groundwater protections established in law, but these are not specific to gas production wells,” the DNR said in a statement to the News Tribune on Monday. “Similarly, there are no specific requirements for DNR permits or mandatory environmental review categories that apply to Helium gas extraction at this time.

“The DNR is considering options for creating a regulatory structure for nonpetroleum gas extraction, including helium and green fuels such as hydrogen,” the DNR continued. “Through this effort, our goal would be to ensure that proper protections are in place for natural resources and human health, and also ensure that a fair royalty structure benefitting Minnesota schools and communities is in place for any proposed extraction of these gases from state lands.”

Helium is highly sought after for being very nonreactive and can be a lightweight gas or can take a liquid form at a temperature near absolute zero to cool equipment. It’s used in everything from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, semiconductor manufacturing, leak testing, air tanks for both medical patients and deep-sea divers, the aerospace and defense industries and, yes, birthday balloons.

But over the last 20 years, the U.S. has experienced repeated shortages of helium, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Abraham-James hopes the Topaz Project will help alleviate that shortage. He said trucks filled at an on-site processing plant could be sent directly to users in Minnesota or elsewhere in the U.S.

The 2011 drill hole also released carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Abraham-James said nitrogen would vented while the carbon dioxide could be used to alleviate a shortage of medical- and food-grade carbon dioxide.

But there were no hydrocarbons found. In most cases, helium is produced as a byproduct of the oil and gas industry, resources Minnesota does not have.

What is does have is a trove of rocks.

“In that part of northern Minnesota, you’ve got some of the oldest rocks on the planet, and within the old rocks, they are typically quite well endowed with uranium and thorium … and over the millions and billions of years, that uranium or thorium disappears, it breaks down and you start to form lead and whatever the sorts of products may be, but you also form helium. So there is a breakdown product of those radioactive elements,” Abraham-James said, emphasizing that the radioactivity is long gone.

When the Midcontinent Rift formed 1.1 billion years ago as North America tried to pull itself apart, sending magma up and leaving behind deposits of copper, nickel and other metals in areas like Minnesota’s Duluth Complex and Tamarack Intrusion, it also formed big fissures that let helium move up and get trapped closer to the surface.

“So you’ve had all that time for the helium just to chug along and get trapped in the same place,” Abraham-James said.

Abraham-James believes there is more helium to be found in the Duluth Complex.

Besides the Topaz site, the DNR said it was unaware of additional helium occurrences in Minnesota.

The only other apparent documentation of helium in the state comes from a 1984 publication by the Minnesota Geological Survey, which said in 1976 a well’s water near Kettle River in Carlton County was found to contain 98% methane, 2% helium and less than 0.01% ethane after “the toilet in the bathroom exploded — a candle had ignited the accumulating gas — and it was found that gas in the water flowing from the faucets would burn.”

A reaction between groundwater and carbonaceous graphite, not oil or natural gas, was likely the source of the methane, the Minnesota Geological Survey said.

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