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Amur GPP: a new enterprise of strategic importance appears in the East of the country

Russia on the way to leadership in helium production. And not only

People all over the world love to launch balloons filled with helium, and hardly think that they are having fun with strategically important raw materials. There is very little helium on Earth, and the demand for it is growing: without this light gas, the production of modern high-tech products is unthinkable. Until recently, the USA was the actual monopolist in helium supplies. This year Russia is launching the first two lines of the Amur Gas Processing Plant. By the end of 2024, this plant will be operating at full capacity, and Russia will become one of the key global players in the solar gas market. What will the "helium revolution" bring to the country and the region?

Amur GPP: a new enterprise of strategic importance appears in the East of the country
Photo: provided by the company

Solar gas that rules the world

Helium is the second most abundant element in the Universe (after hydrogen), but it is extremely scarce on Earth. It was first discovered on the Sun, and it was decided that it was only there, hence the name ("helium" - "solar"). This gas is volatile, and left the atmosphere of our planet in prehistoric times, remaining only in underground deposits of natural gas mixed with other gases. From there, they extract it.


The size of the main construction site of the Amur GPP is about 800 hectares, 
it could accommodate 1100 football fields


Since the beginning of the 2,8th century, the United States has been the largest owner of helium reserves. A hundred years ago, this country was going to build tens of thousands of military airships. The airships were abandoned - the helium remained. The Federal Helium Reserve, a mine near Amarillo, Texas, has about 1996 billion cubic feet of helium. For decades, helium concentrate has been stored as a strategic reserve; the reserve formally belonged to the "American people", it was contained in the budget. With the advancement of semiconductor and superconducting technology, the Cliffside vault in Texas became a treasure overnight. In XNUMX, a law was passed on the privatization of helium. From now on, the Bureau of Land Use (the structure that owns the land above the mine) can, at its discretion, put on the market helium from the reserves. So "surveyors" became world monopolists in the helium market.

The production of modern microelectronics and, in particular, superconducting elements is unthinkable without helium. It is used in magnetic tomographs, for cooling nuclear reactors, in precision welding, and finally in the space industry. In some cases, helium can be replaced by other noble gases, but most often it is out of competition.

According to Edison Investment Research, by the beginning of 2020, 80% of the world's helium supply was provided by only five facilities: the already familiar US Federal Reserve Helium (Cliffside), the American oil and gas fields Hugoton and LaBarge, as well as the countries of Qatar and Algeria. A high degree of monopolization makes the market unstable. For example, in 2017, an embargo was imposed on the export of helium from Qatar, due to which the global market immediately lost 30% of supplies. In 2019, when factories in the United States and Algeria started to prevent prevention, this led to a deficit of more than 40% of demand, according to KornbluthHelium Consulting. Recently, the US authorities decided to release helium from the reserve only to state consumers: the last auction will take place in 2023. This will increase tensions in the market. The US itself still consumes less helium than it produces. According to the US Geological Survey, in 2020, domestic consumption was 40 million cubic meters. m, while the country exported 100 million cubic meters. m. (at the same time, according to the department, own production from natural gas in the United States amounted to about 61 million cubic meters, the rest was covered by reserves from storage facilities and other sources). The demand for liquid helium, which is a cryogenic, that is, an ultra-cold substance, in 2020 is caused, among other things, by the need to produce and store low-temperature vaccines against Covid-19. 


At the Research Institute named after Sklifosovsky Research Institute for Emergency Medicine, patients with Covid-19 are being treated with a mixture of helium and oxygen. Source a photo


With the commissioning of the first start-up complex of the Amur GPP, a lot will change, and not only on the Russian - on the world market. In the second quarter of this year, two production lines will be commissioned, as well as the first of three helium production units. The first gas processing plant in the Far East has been under construction since 2015 near the town of Svobodny (Amur Region). 


At the construction site of the Amur GPP


When launched at full capacity, it will produce 60 million cubic meters of helium, which will immediately make Russia one of the largest players in the helium market. If now our country produces about 5 million cubic meters. m of helium per year, in the near future its production will grow 13 times.


Siberian gas, cluster - Amur

The Amur GPP is being built by Gazprom as part of the Eastern Gas Program. The investor and customer of the gas processing plant construction project is Gazprom Pererabotka Blagoveshchensk LLC (part of the Gazprom Group). At the end of 2019, President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping launched the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, which will supply over 30 trillion cubic meters to China over the next 1 years. m of gas. 

The key point of the agreements is that only purified methane will go from Russia to China. All associated fractions will be extracted from natural gas for further processing on the Russian side. It is this operation that will be carried out at the Amur GPP.

By the time it reaches its design capacity, the Amur GPP will produce about 38 billion cubic meters annually. m of commercial methane, 60 million cubic meters. m of helium, more than 2 million tons of ethane, 1,5 million tons of propane and butane, 200 thousand tons of pentane-hexane fraction.


Installation of helium purification, liquefaction and filling of the first start-up complex of the Amur GPP


Part of the Amur GPP products (ethane and liquefied petroleum gases) will be purchased by SIBUR as soon as it finishes building the Amur Gas Chemical Complex (GCC) nearby. The symbolic first pile was driven into the base of the plant in the summer of 2020. The MCC will become one of the largest in the world: its capacity is estimated at 2,3 million tons of polyethylene and 400 thousand tons of polypropylene per year. Its future products - plastics and polymers - are in demand in all sectors of the economy. 

Another part of the GPP's products will be sold in the domestic and international markets. For example, pentane-hexane fraction is a feedstock for high-octane gasoline, rubbers and solvents. Helium from the Amur GPP is supposed to be delivered in liquid form in iso-containers to the ports of Primorsky Krai. A logistics complex is being specially built near Vladivostok, which will become the world's largest hub for organizing the supply of liquid helium to the international market. From there, cryogenic iso-containers with the coldest substance on earth will be exported to China, South Korea and Japan. 


Liquid helium logistics: delivery in ISO containers from the Amur GPP 
to the Logistic Service Center for helium containers 
(Vladivostok) and further to the ports of Primorsky Krai


A scarcity that won't last forever

“At the start of negotiations with China, Russia made it clear that the launch of the gas pipeline to the Middle Kingdom is linked to the deep processing of raw gas: we will trade separately methane, separately the rest of the fractions and products from them,” recalls Stanislav Mitrahovich, an expert at the Financial University and the National Energy Security Fund. Perhaps then, ten years ago, many thought that the mention of helium in conjunction with methane was nothing more than a negotiation maneuver. “But the situation is changing, the role of helium in the high-tech industry is growing,” says Mitrahovic. 

“Today, helium, which is produced together with gas at the Chayandinskoye field, is separated from the feed gas using a special membrane technology, and in the form of helium concentrate is sent back to the reservoir for storage,” says a leading analyst of the National Energy Security Fund, an expert Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation Igor Yushkov. Thus, the reservoir is a kind of natural helium storage. “Of course, it is in the interests of Gazprom to capitalize on the helium history,” says Yushkov. “Helium is far from the most widespread gas in the world, and the demand for it is constantly growing, primarily in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The first of the three helium purification and liquefaction units at the Amur GPP will produce 20 million cubic meters. m per year. After the launch of three units, production will amount to 60 million cubic meters m, which will change the global "helium landscape".


The most modern equipment is used in the construction of the Amur GPP 

For comparison: in 2020, the world production of helium was 140 million cubic meters. m (against 160 million cubic meters in 2019). The capacity of a single Russian enterprise turns out to be comparable to that of the United States, and surpasses the capabilities of Qatar (45 million cubic meters), Algeria (14 million cubic meters) and Australia (4 million cubic meters).

In the Asia-Pacific region, Russia, in fact, has no competitors: the field at the Darwin plant in Australia is nearing depletion, says Roland Kuchler of UniperGlobalCommodities. At the same time, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that the most acute demand is, since it is in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan where microelectronics factories are concentrated. “We see that a lot of factories are being built and they will be put into operation soon. The demand for helium will only grow, ”says Kuchler.

It should not be forgotten that helium is not the main component of the Power of Siberia project, recalls Igor Yushkov. “According to the agreements, China pays only for methane,” says Yushkov. “We could supply them with gas as it is produced, with all fractions, please, they will buy it and, most likely, simply burn it. But this is not profitable. We intend to extract valuable fractions from the feed gas, and not only helium, to send to the Sibur plants under construction, to process and thus leave added value in the country. " Negotiations with China, of course, were conducted mainly around methane, Mitrakhovich agrees, but it is in the APR countries that the microelectronic industry is concentrated, which means, potentially, the main consumers of helium, he adds.

 

Transformation of the outskirts

So, an industrial region is emerging in the Russian Far East, which will become the focus of the new economy. How does this change life in the Amur Region itself?

Now at the site of the Amur GPP, more than 30 thousand construction workers are involved. When the enterprise reaches its design capacity, it will employ about 2,5 permanent operating personnel. For the small town of Svobodny, which has 20 thousand employed and 54 thousand inhabitants, this is a very noticeable figure. Gazprom promises that each GPP employee will be provided with a competitive salary level, medical insurance and corporate training. Today the best gas specialists from other regions of the country come here. On the official website of OOO Gazprom pererabotka Blagoveshchensk posted vacancies - industry professionals are expected on the Amur.

Svobodny itself is gradually changing - a monotown that plunged into depression in the 1990s. New housing, communications are under construction, household and medical infrastructure is developing. For the personnel of the Amur GPP, a residential neighborhood for 5 thousand residents with a school, a kindergarten, a clinic, a house of culture and a sports complex will be built. The project provides for the construction of more than 165 thousand square meters of housing and 100 thousand square meters of social facilities. Key objects include 42 apartment buildings and 36 townhouses, with a total of 1688 apartments. The kindergarten will be able to accept 350 children, the school is designed for 900 students, the clinic - for 290 visits of adults and children. The construction of social infrastructure is scheduled to be completed in 2024. 

The arrival of a large industrial company in the region is also an inflow of funds into the social sphere. So, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the companies involved in the construction of the Amur GPP took over the construction and arrangement of modern equipment for anti-venom hospitals. In 2020, OOO Gazprom pererabotka Blagoveshchensk allocated more than RUB 21 million. for charitable purposes: the purchase of equipment for boarding schools, computer science classes and robotics circles, assistance is provided to the disabled and war veterans. Earlier, funds were invested in the educational infrastructure of the region. A specialized “Gazprom class” has been operating in one of the city's schools for several years, from which, in case of successful training, it is easier to get to work at the GPP. At the beginning of the project, Gazprom Pererabotka Blagoveshchensk invested in equipping the Amur Technical College, where now there are specialties in demand in gas processing. And she helped Amur State University in equipping laboratories, which are used by students who are also studying in a new specialty for the region, "Chemical technology".

“Projects such as the Amur GPP form the main inflow of investments into the region, thanks to which the necessary socio-economic and industrial infrastructure is being created here and now,” says Lyudmila Starkova, Minister of Economic Development and External Relations of the Amur Region.

About 90 billion rubles of budgetary funds will be invested in the development of the infrastructure of the city of Svobodny, including 32 billion rubles. from the federal budget, explained in the administration of the Amur region. The region has already experienced an influx of tax payments from the construction of the enterprise, and this amount is growing. If at the start of construction in 2014, the regional budget received about 4,8 million rubles, then in 2020 - almost 8,2 billion rubles. In just 7 years, at the expense of the Amur GPP, the budget of the Amur Region received over 17,5 billion rubles. At the same time, most of this amount is due to personal income tax and corporate income tax, - they explain in the regional administration.

According to a sociological survey conducted in December 2020, 80% of residents of Svobodny and nearby settlements said that they were positive about the construction of the enterprise. 91% of respondents believe that the Amur GPP is important for the development of the region, because construction gives local residents work, increases their income and reduces the outflow of young people. And taxes paid by the investor and his contractors help develop local infrastructure.


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