Recent tests improve odds of big helium stake near Babbitt

Workers tap underground gases — mostly carbon dioxide and helium — for testing at the Pulsar Helium Topaz Project site near Babbitt, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Pulsar Helium)

In the early days of iron exploration on the Mesabi Range, the thrill of discovery was dampened somewhat by the slow process of assaying what they found. It’s a little like how we once had to wait for film to develop to see how pictures turned out. 

The Merritt Brothers’ carried around inspiration for years in the form of an iron-rich rock picked up by Cassius Merritt while he surveyed for the Duluth & Winnipeg Railroad. Later, they uncovered a beautiful, deep blue vein of hematite at Mountain Iron. Overjoyed, they nevertheless had to wait for a man on a horse to carry a bagful of ore to Duluth for testing.

Last year, news of a rich helium gas discovery on the Iron Range drew a lot of attention. Tests showed concentrations of 13.8 percent, some of the highest among the world’s helium wells. But preliminary testing was just that: a pretty good guess.

Well, in early June, new tests confirmed the quality of the helium deposit, while giving a better indication of the quantity. 

First, the flow from the gas deposit was strong, meaning that the company won’t have to frack for any of the gas. That dramatically reduces risk of environmental harm. 

Second, the helium concentration was confirmed to be excellent, with concentrations ranging from 8.7% to 14.5% helium. For perspective, some of the biggest helium operations in the world get by on 0.5% helium. 

Perhaps most importantly, the flow testing recorded a maximum flow of up to 821,000 cubic feet per day. Pressure build-up also indicated significant volume. With such a high concentration of helium, company officials say this makes Pulsar’s Topaz site “one of the best primary helium wells in the world.”

One interesting addition from the Pulsar testing was the high concentration of carbon dioxide. More than 70 percent of what comes out of the well is CO2. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but one that is naturally occurring and not as harmful as methane or other products of manmade pollution. In fact, Pulsar says carbon dioxide of this quality can be sold commercially, adding to the project’s chances of economic success.

I wrote a May 29 essay for the Minnesota Reformer detailing the economic and scientific differences between helium extraction and iron mining. Most notable are the elements themselves. 

Iron is one of the heaviest elements in the universe. It’s so heavy that it creates a reaction at the heart of a star that causes it to explode. Thus, iron deserves at least partial credit for the creation of our planet and solar system. Here on the Mesabi Range, we know iron well. It’s heavy and we’ve been making money off it for more than a century.

Helium is quite different. 

What goes up must come down, or so the saying goes. But the extraction of commercial-grade helium requires a modified version of this adage. With the ultra-light gas helium, what goes up keeps going. All the way to outer space. Capturing the economic benefits is tricky business.

Helium is so small and light, that it escapes anything you put it in over time, even metal cylinders. It must be transported directly to customers as quickly as possible.

Pulsar plans to ship its helium to customers in the Midwest. Just in Minnesota, high tech manufacturing companies and medical firms are already big helium consumers. Having a local source would be highly beneficial.

The helium industry simply does not demand the workforce and infrastructure that large-scale mining requires. Once it’s up and running, Pulsar will employ a few dozen people at most. 

Nevertheless, Pulsar’s success at the Topaz site should be celebrated because it provides a clean supply of a necessary element, and for the jobs and public royalties it will generate. It’s an example of the lean nature of the commodities business of the future: Small operations making big money quickly. 

Just like the old days. Worthwhile, but only if we use the time and money to take care of local communities.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 15, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. I have to say, the stuff about CO2 reads a bit like what the corporate press release would like us to be saying about it. The reality is that CO2 is CO2, whether it’s “natural” or created by human processes like burning fossil fuels. Methane is indeed a much more potent greenhouse gas, but there’s a reason that we measure the climate harm done in equivalent tons of CO2 — it makes up about 75% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon dioxide coming out of these helium mines will be carbon that had previously been removed from the atmosphere and therefore this project will be a carbon emitter — even if they’re able to capture the CO2 for sale, it will eventually be released to the atmosphere due to this helium mine. I’m excited for the helium discovery (I’ve been a spoilsport about helium use for party and parade balloons for a while) but I get a feeling of environmental greenwashing with some of this stuff (portraying the project as relatively clean since helium isn’t a greenhouse gas and has important uses like in MRIs) and it makes me that much more skeptical of their claims in general.

  2. joe musich says

    Yea! Carbon emision is carbon emisson is at this point in tje planet’s history no ta particularly good thing. Are substitutes for helium being researched ? Not sure who the “we” is referenced in this comment…”Here on the Mesabi Range, we know iron well. It’s heavy and we’ve been making money off it for more than a century.” Some much much more then others.Some were toally shut out, Manybe no possessive. As a state park is being closed for more hard rock mining or is ita cover for flooding ? One wonders.

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