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"A dream. It's perfect": Helium discovery in northern Minnesota may be biggest ever in North America

High concentration of helium found buried deep in Iron Range
High concentration of helium found buried deep in Iron Range 02:38

MINNEAPOLIS — Scientists and researchers are celebrating what they call a "dream" discovery after an exploratory drill confirmed a high concentration of helium buried deep in Minnesota's Iron Range.

Thomas Abraham-James, CEO of Pulsar Helium, said the confirmed presence of helium could be one of the most significant such finds in the world.

"There was a lot of screaming, a lot of hugging and high fives. It's nice to know the efforts all worked out and we pulled it off," Abraham-James said.

CBS News Minnesota toured the drill site soon after the drill rig first broke ground at the beginning of February. The discovery happened more than three weeks later at about 2 a.m. Thursday, as a drill reached its depth of 2,200 feet below the surface.

According to Abraham-James, the helium concentration was measured at 12.4%, which is higher than forecasted and roughly 30 times the industry standard for commercial helium.

"12.4% is just a dream. It's perfect," he said.

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 and other researchers have since scoured the globe for other helium deposits to help improve global supply.

Prior to arriving in Minnesota, Abraham-James was working in Tanzania, where another helium discovery was made, but at half the concentration as found in the Iron Range. 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. 

Dr. Grant Larson, a radiologist at Hennepin Healthcare, said the health system's four MRI machines rely on helium to operate.

"We're aware that it could potentially render us vulnerable to not being able to provide access to our patients," Dr. Larson told CBS News Minnesota. "So much of medical decision-making is based on the results of the MRI."

Now that helium is confirmed to be underground in Babbitt, Abraham-James said the next phase of the project is a feasibility study by an independent third party to study the size of the well and whether it could support a full-service helium plant.

"It's not just about drilling one hole, but now proving up the geological models, being able to get some really good data that wasn't captured in the original discovery," he explained. "It has the potential to really contribute to local society."

The company said the feasibility study could take until the end of the year to complete.

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