Watch CBS News

Scientific team drills into ground in Babbitt, hoping to strike helium reserve

Could helium discovery reinvigorate Iron Range's mining industry?
Could helium discovery reinvigorate Iron Range's mining industry? 06:24

BABBITT, Minn. — Minnesota's Iron Range may be known for its metals, but it's a gas that's now getting a lot of attention as a group of scientists are drilling more than 1,800 feet in search of helium.

"It is quite nice to think beneath the feet here there is this accumulation of gas, and it is very rare," Thomas Abraham-James, CEO of Pulsar Helium, Inc., explained to WCCO. "The word would be significant. This significance is definitely on a global scale."

Pulsar is investing millions of dollars into searching for helium in a remote area near Babbitt in St. Louis County. A team of more than 20 engineers, geologists, mechanics and other researchers from across the U.S. and around the world have converged to the spot where an accidental discovery was made in 2011.

"Our objectives are to replicate the original discovery," Abraham-James said. "What we have here, the conditions right outside of Babbitt, is significant because the rock that is containing the gas, is impermeable. The gas is effectively trapped and over time can accumulate and accumulate and accumulate without leaking to the surface. That's very rare to find globally."

For decades, the U.S. was the leading exporter of helium, but the former government-run reserves have since been depleted and sold off to private equity. Abraham-James, among other researchers, have since scoured the globe for other helium deposits to help improve global supply. 

"In Africa, a discovery was made in Tanzania, which is now the largest producer of helium," he said. "It's very hard to transport helium. It likes to leak, it likes to go in the atmosphere, so being close to the end users of helium is very important."

Russia and Qatar are other major helium exporters. 

The inert gas is likely known by most consumers for filling balloons and blimps, but it's actually one of the most sought-after commodities in the world because of its versatility; as a liquid, helium is among the most effective and safest coolants around. 

MORE: How Minnesota hospitals, state officials prepare for cyber attacks

"If you've gone to get an MRI, it's inside and cooling the magnets and all the instruments in hospitals that are doing imaging," Paul Crowell, Chair of the University of Minnesota's School of Physics and Astronomy, told WCCO. "It's really the only practical way for certain large scientific apparatus to keep it that cold continuously."

According to Crowell, the price of helium has increased nearly ten-fold in the past decade, in part because of the soaring demand and dwindling supply. The U has since invested more than $1 million into its own compressor to liquify and retain the helium the department uses every day.

"Semiconducting processing, aerospace. Those are the industries that use helium, and a key point is a delivery network, so those places which now wouldn't build in Minnesota might find it more attractive if we have a local source," Crowell said.

In Babbitt, the drill travels about 30 feet per day, so the team hopes to reach its destination depth towards the end of February. If the helium is there, Abraham-James promised a big celebration followed by a lot more hard work.

"The science involved is incredible," he added. "We really do look at every aspect of geology, the gasses, the fluid compositions. Where does the helium come from? We get down to the isotopic level."

UPDATE: The above article and video state that the drill travels 30 feet per day, but engineers onsite are now reporting the average penetration is some 125+ feet per day. Additionally, Pulsar Helium, Inc., wishes to make clear that some members of their team on site, including the drilling crew, rig operators, and borehole infrastructure, are subcontractors operating independently of Pulsar.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.