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What to know about Minnesota's richest-in-the-world helium deposit

Men work on Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
Men work on Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.

Pulsar Helium discovered an unprecedented helium deposit near Babbitt, which could make Minnesota the center of the important industry.

BABBITT — A half-hour ride from Babbitt along bumpy Superior National Forest roads crisscrossed by rivers and creeks and ATV trails, there is a drill site.

Surrounded by conifers, workers on the 1-acre site are serenaded by the constant, grunting hum of a motor. On a large yellow drill pad flanked by white pickup trucks, men in hard hats work on the rig, preparing to release what lies beneath.

As with most drill sites, the real interest is in what lies beneath. In this instance, it’s not iron ore or precious metal — it's gas. Beneath the rocky, muddy ground is one of the most concentrated deposits of helium ever recorded.

Pulsar Helium's Operations General Manager Michael Sturdy explains the project at the Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
Pulsar Helium's Operations General Manager Michael Sturdy explains the project at the Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.

Pulsar Helium licensed the site in 2021, and General Manager of Operations Michael Sturdy knows all about helium’s many “magical properties.” It's the most stable of the elements. It can be mixed with other gases. It’s colorless, odorless and tasteless. It can’t burn, but more importantly, it can’t freeze.

“So, to get it to liquid form you really have to high pressure and very, very, very cold environment,” he said. “That’s where a lot of its special properties occur.”

Liquid helium is the coldest element on the planet. It’s used in MRI machines to cool the machines superconducting magnets.

When most people think of helium, they picture balloons or high-pitched, squeaky voices. But the element plays an important role in manufacturing, research and even national defense. Semi-conductors, fiber optics and electric vehicles all rely on helium, and it cools everything from rockets to nuclear reactors.

Since the mid-2000s, there have been regular helium shortages, the most recent of which began a few years ago. Like most economic situations, the shortages were brought on by a disconnect between supply and demand. Helium demand decreased last year following a decline in the electronics industry. A boost in supply has also helped ease the shortage, though its Russian provider comes with its own instability.

There may not be a present shortage, but the helium market is far from stable. Pulsar hopes an unprecedented discovery in Minnesota will change that.

Ballooning issues

The U.S. is the global leader in helium consumption. It was also once the biggest producer.

For decades, the federal government stockpiled the gas. But in the ‘90s, the U.S. began to sell off its supply, in part to cover the $1.4 billion debt the reserve had incurred by purchasing it. The formula-based sale price dictated by Congress resulted in cheap helium flooding the market, killing private producers and contributing to the last two decades of helium shortages.

A 2013 law aimed to mitigate the shortage by raising the sale price while continuing to sell off the reserve. Congress also set a 2021 deadline for the reserve’s sale. It sold January 2024.

Thomas Abraham-James, the CEO and co-founder of Pulsar Helium, said as the shortage intensified and helium prices rose, the standalone helium industry was born. He and partners started the first-ever helium exploration company, Helium One, in London in 2015. Pulsar began in 2022.

“I guess that we wrote the helium exploration playbook,” Abraham-James said. “How to look for it, where to look for it, what makes it viable, how do you get investment in it, regulatory framework, all sorts.”

While the U.S. is still a major helium producer, Abraham-James explained that other major sources are less stable, and there’s a real need for helium-focused production.

“The rest of the world’s helium is a byproduct of natural gas, and the big producers are Qatar, Russia, Algeria. All have their political risk, I guess you could say,” he said.

“ ... Being reliant on secondary production is not great because if the world all of a sudden needs more helium for making a semi-conductor, a natural gas company is not going to start producing more natural gas for the little bit of helium that’s there, because the economics don’t work.”

Minnesota’s rich deposit could stabilize the helium market, he said, filling the role vacated by the sale of the helium reserve.

From bedrock to breakthrough

The Midcontinent Rift
U.S. Geological Survey
The Midcontinent Rift

Abraham-James and other Pulsar geologists had identified Minnesota’s helium potential before their discovery because of its location on the Midcontinent Rift.

Over a billion years ago, North America began to split into two. The rift failed, but it left a rock formation from Ontario to Kansas. Evidence of the rift is visible along the North Shore.

Lakeview Park in Two Harbors on Aug. 5, 2021.
Lorie Shaull
The iconic rocky North Shore of Lake Superior was created by the Midcontinent Rift over a billion years ago.

Department of Natural Resources Senior Geologist Don Elsenheimer said helium is a byproduct of radioactive decay in the Earth’s crust, so while the Midcontinent Rift didn’t create the helium, it did provide the necessary conditions for it to escape.

“Once you heat up that rock, it will release the helium that’s trapped in the granite,” Elsenheimer said. “Then you have to have some sort of migration pathway. Think of it like a plumbing system within the crust.”

The rift created faults and fractures the super-light helium could travel through — the “plumbing.” There are two more geologic components necessary for a helium deposit.

“You need a reservoir, like that kind of rock that’s maybe porous and has fractures and it’s got nooks and crannies that the helium can accumulate in,” Elsenheimer said. “But over top of that then you need a different type of rock, a seal, that is very impermeable that kind of traps the helium within the reservoir. It’s sort of like a cap on a bottle top.”

Northeastern Minnesota’s Duluth Complex is a great trap rock, Elsenheimer said, but it was thought that Minnesota was missing a reservoir.

“The reservoir rock is quite often a sort of a sedimentary rock like a limestone or a sandstone,” he said. “But we don’t have those kinds of sedimentary rocks in Northeastern Minnesota, so it’s got to be something very different.”

Elsenheimer said before the 2011 accidental discovery of helium at the site Pulsar is now testing, nobody would have come to Minnesota for the gas because it lacked the right rocks.

“If it turns out we do have the right rocks and there’s a lot of helium found here, that will adjust the paradigms or models on how these sorts of helium deposits form and that information would be applied elsewhere in the world, I would imagine,” he said.

Despite hundreds of exploratory copper-nickel holes drilled throughout the region, many at the same depth as the helium discovery, Pulsar's site is the only place where a discovery was reported. Elsenheimer said other discoveries may have occurred but not recognized or shared, but he also theorizes the shape of the deposit could explain why this is likely the first.

The Babbitt helium deposit could be vertical. Rather than a shallow, pancake-like distribution, the gas could be clustered in a deep, narrow pocket.

“It’s the difference between trying to find iron on the Iron Range when you’ve got a rock unit that’s 3 miles wide and 120 miles long. It’s really easy to drill for iron there,” Elsenheimer said. “But it’s a lot harder if you were looking for gold when it’s vertical faults and the deposit might only be at the surface 40 acres across.”

If Pulsar does begin helium production in Minnesota, Elsenheimer thinks there will be a lot more exploratory drilling for deposits throughout the entire Midcontinent Rift. But the deep holes necessary cost $1.5 million each to drill, so whether this discovery is a one-off or the first to uncover the rift’s helium riches is a more-than-a-million-dollar question.

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Rising expectations

For Pulsar to begin production, it must first determine how much helium there is. Multiple lab results indicate just how impressive this deposit is in terms of concentration: 8.7-14.5% helium. For context, a concentration of 0.3% is what’s generally considered the minimum for commercial viability.

“But you need more than just a rich gas that’s got a lot of helium, you need to know how much gas there is total,” Elsenheimer said. “It doesn't matter if it’s incredibly rich if there’s only a bath tub’s worth.”

Men work on the Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
Men work on the Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.

On a chilly day in late May, Pulsar was prepping for flow and pressure tests to estimate just that. Three weeks later, Pulsar announced that the test results indicate significant volumes of gas.

“All data gathered indicates that this is not an isolated occurrence with the helium-bearing zone likely to extend laterally and at depth,” CEO Abraham-James said in a news release.

The release stated Pulsar plans to drill deeper in its existing well and drill additional wells to confirm the findings.

Pulsar also shared what other gases made up the samples: up to 71% carbon dioxide, 24% nitrogen and less than 5% hydrocarbons — gases like methane and propane.

General Manager Sturdy said Pulsar may liquify the carbon dioxide to sell locally for food and beverage use.

With more testing to be done, it’s difficult to say when production may begin.

“If all the planets align and everything goes swimmingly, there is the opportunity that perhaps toward the end of next year there may be something,” Abraham-James said.

Production of the helium itself is rather simple.

“It really is basically you’re putting a straw into the subsurface, it comes out into basically the piping above ground, compressed into an IsoTube and that’s trucked off,” Sturdy said.

There’s a bit more processing that would occur in the middle, all happening on site. The extracted gas would go through three or four modules the size of 40-foot storage containers, extracting the other gases. The necessary facilities wouldn’t require much more land than the 1-acre drill site; another acre, at most.

Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
Pulsar Helium's Jetstream No. 1 Topaz Project appraisal well in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.

Because of the extraction element, Abraham-James said he understands comparisons to mining, but it’s ultimately different. There’s no interaction with water. The only consumable is electricity. Pulsar doesn’t put any chemicals down its drill holes, only food-grade additives. He said common environmental concerns with natural gas extraction aren’t relevant.

“Nor is it anything we would ever contemplate doing,” Abraham-James said. “And not only on a personal level, I wouldn’t want to do that nor would my colleagues, but also it’s just not necessary.”

He said some may say it’s too good to be true, but sometimes things are just that good.

Gas gains

That bodes well for the helium industry, but it wouldn’t be the only beneficiary.

In its last session, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill, allowing the Pollution Control Agency, Department of Health, Environmental Quality Board, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Labor and Industry to establish rules for oil and gas production. The legislation was passed with potential helium production in mind.

The law prohibits production without a permit, which cannot be issued until rules are adopted. But the Legislature can approve a temporary permit, and expedited rulemaking is required.

Grant Hauschild headshot - 2023.jpg
Minnesota Senate
State Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown.

Helium deposits and extraction don't exactly conform to property boundaries, and the law sets an 18.75% royalty, paid to the DNR, on gas and oil sales. The royalty would be used, in part, to ensure private landowners are compensated for the gas that would likely be extracted from under their property by a well not on their land.

The Babbitt site, on private land within the Superior National Forest, is surrounded by state-managed acreage, which means local schools and government could see millions in royalties.

State Sen. Grant Hauschild, one of the bill’s authors, said getting the framework in place was essential, even without knowing what Pulsar or others may do.

“Are we talking two years of helium? Are we talking 10 years, 20 years? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think the industry or the company knows yet either,” he said in an interview with KAXE in May, before the law was enacted.

“But if I had to say anything, it’s that we need to make sure these rules are in place, this royalty structure is here. So that, depending on how limited or how vast the amount of helium is, that we can benefit from it.”

Abraham-James said he agrees that Minnesotans must benefit from Pulsar’s presence. In other places, regulation has taken much longer, but he thinks Minnesota sees the opportunity.

“I’m just actually really pleased to see the level of attention that we’ve been given,” he said. “ ... To see that that system is being put in place and it’s being taken very seriously, we’re very grateful for that, to be honest.”

All production and value-adding would stay in the state, he said. Though production wouldn’t create a ton of jobs, the workforce would be local.

“We want to keep it so I’m the only foreigner walking around there,” Abraham-James, who is British, said. “ ... In fact, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised, in the past few months since we drilled the well, [with] the number of people in Minnesota that’ve got really strong backgrounds in gas have reached out to us.

I just thought with the lack of gas history in Minnesota, these people simply wouldn’t be there, but I was wrong. So really, really chuffed.”

The water tower in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.
Lorie Shaull
The water tower in Babbitt on May 21, 2024.

There would also be secondary businesses that would assist Pulsar, he said, spreading the economic impact, and there’s also the potential for more helium companies to come to the area.

To Hauschild, the presence of helium further supports his region’s greatness.

“The best parts of Minnesota are truly Northern Minnesota. And without us, without the industries that we have, without the minerals and natural resources that we have in Northern Minnesota, our state wouldn’t be what it is,” he said.

“ ... I think this is just another example of Northern Minnesota having a key concentration of a rare mineral that we all need, from semi-conductors, medical equipment to renewable energy projects and all of the different things that we need, this helium discovery is going to help us achieve that, and it’s great that it would come from Northern Minnesota.”

Megan Buffington joined the KAXE newsroom in 2024 after graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally from Pequot Lakes, she is passionate about educating and empowering communities through local reporting.