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First-of-its-kind helium purification facility opens in southern Alberta

While the province is best known for oil and gas production, a new first-of-its-kind facility in southern Alberta is focused on making the province a leader in the production of a whole other element.

The Steveville Helium Purification Facility saw its grand opening Saturday in the community of Princess, located northeast of Brooks.

Owned by Royal Helium Ltd., the plant started up in October and has secured a long-term contract to supply an American space launch company, though it’s unclear which one.

Dignitaries including Alberta Premier Danielle Smith attended the grand opening of the facility, which is expected to produce 15 million cubic feet per day.

She says helium is a critical resource used in everything from hospital MRI machines to small modular reactors, and continued to say it’s great to see Alberta strengthen its helium production supply.

In addition, Smith and Minister of Energy and Minerals Brian Jean issued a joint statement, saying the opening is great news and that the province continues to “diversify our economy, pursue innovative technologies and grow our natural resources industry.”

“While the development of the helium industry in Alberta is in its early stages, the growth potential is high and the opportunities are obvious. Helium is a critical resource that plays a prominent role in the operation of medical imaging equipment, nuclear magnetic resonance, aerospace, defence and energy programs. It is also used in the manufacture of technology components like fibre optic cables and semiconductors,” their statement reads.

“This is truly a homegrown win for jobs, our economy and the diversification of our province’s energy industry.”

According to the province, Royal Helium has a gross license area of over 24,000 hectares for the project.

Helium production in Alberta and Saskatchewan

In the same month, the Helium Developers’ Association of Canada (HeDAC) was created with Royal Helium and four other helium startups to “create public awareness and align industry and governments in advancing much-needed domestic helium supply.”

Canada has the fifth largest concentration of helium resources in the world, at about 70 billion cubic feet, according to the US Geological Survey, with Canada’s Energy Regulator stating most of it is found in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The regulator also says Saskatchewan is producing one per cent of the world’s helium supply. It currently has 23 wells producing helium, and eight helium purification facilities as of 2023.

Saskatchewan has a goal of securing 10 per cent of the global market share in the helium sector by 2030, and through the Helium Action Plan: From Exploration to Exports (HAP), it aims to create 100,000 new jobs, increasing the value of exports by 50 per cent, and will help diversify the economy.

The non-combustible gas is one of 31 federally designated Canadian critical minerals and an enabler for the development and application of high-tech and clean technologies, which HeDAC says will be essential to Canada’s lower carbon future.

Alberta’s total helium production was 2,100 cubic metres per day from two producing wells, according to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER). It forecasts the province will have 28 wells producing 16,000 cubic metres per day by 2032.

“Because Alberta produces more than half of Canada’s natural gas, the province is well-positioned to become a preferred producer and supplier of helium,” the AER said on its website.

However, the AER says a potential limiting factor for the province’s future helium production is competition for capital with Saskatchewan, “where the helium industry is developing faster.”

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