Introduction

This paper describes the Ras Laffan Helium Project, a joint undertaking by RasGas and Qatargas to extract, purify, and liquefy for export sales helium contained in Qatar's North Field.

Although helium is the most common element in the universe it is rarely found in concentrations, which can justify economic extraction. In the earth's crust, helium is formed continuously by the radioactive decay of heavy metals. Typically this helium will diffuse through the earth's surface and, being lighter than air, will disperse into the upper regions of the atmosphere. However in some instances, helium can be found in natural gas reservoirs. Qatar's North Field is such a reservoir.

These helium-containing reservoirs have long formed the primary commercial source of helium. The majority of the world's helium production is derived from the US, although significant quantities are also produced in Algeria and Europe. Table 1 shows the production of helium by geographical region.

World demand for helium in 2004 was estimated at 5.5 billion scf (GCF) and has been growing by approximately 5% per year. Table 2 shows the consumption of helium by geographical region.

The North Field contains only a trace amount of helium estimated at 0.04%.However, due to the enormous size of this reservoir the total contained helium is thought to be 360 billion cubic feet, enough to supply the world demand for the next 30 years. At this low concentration helium extraction would generally not be economically attractive. However, a fortunate side effect of the existing LNG process is to concentrate the helium tenfold. With that in mid, RasGas and Qatargas initiated a feasibility study in 2000 to examine the potential to recover helium from the North Field. That study concluded that a helium extraction project in the State of Qatar could be commercially viable.

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