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Wyoming geological survey looks at helium resources in the state

LaBarge helium plant.
LaBarge helium plant.

When you think of helium you probably think of party balloons, but it turns out, there’s a lot more uses. A new Wyoming State Geological Survey report shows that the Cowboy State produces a lot of the helium in the world.

“It's [helium] used in MRI systems, aerospace, and manufacturing electronics, particularly semiconductors,” said Kelsey Keyhoe, who authored the report.

About 25 percent of the world’s helium supply comes from Wyoming – specifically from the natural gas fields around LaBarge and Big Piney in southwest Wyoming, which were developed in the ‘80s.

“Helium is only found in economic quantities in like natural gas accumulations,” Keyhoe said.

But the natural gas fields have to have the right geology to hold the helium in volumes that are economical, which the LaBarge and Big Piney areas have.

“The system that can hold it and the seal that can hold it in is appropriate. It's a very small molecule and so it generally escapes for most other fields around the state,” said Ranie Lynds, who manages the geological survey’s energy and minerals team.

The helium is separated out from the natural gas and other gasses at ExxonMobil’s Shute Creek natural gas processing plant in Lincoln County.

Demand for helium is expected to increase, Keyhoe said, and the report shows Niobrara and Sweetwater counties could possibly have enough helium that’s worth exploring commercially. The LaBarge and Big Piney areas are expected to have about 80 years worth of helium supply left.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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