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Pulsar launches Jetstream

Ely Echo - Staff Photo

by Nick Wognum

The drilling of Pulsar Helium’s Jetstream #1 appraisal well at the Topaz helium project off Dunka River Road near Babbitt is now underway.

And while perhaps not in the plans, the jetstream from a passing jet crossed behind the drill rig Monday morning. The name Jetstream comes from the “jet engine” sound heard when the deposit was accidentally tapped in 2011.

Company officials were genuinely excited to share information on the new drilling operation, which has a budget of $1.3-$1.6 million.

The tour group started at the Babbitt city hall where geologist Phil Larson used a piece of core from the 2011 copper-nickel exploration drill hole to show how the rocks above the helium deposit are keeping the gas from escaping.

“The plate-shaped crystals are all stacked and it’s the perfect cap rock for sealing in gas,” said Larson.

He said the composition of rock at the site often holds platinum and palladium in thin layers. “That’s why we were poking around in here in 2011,” said Larson. “What we’ve been able to reconstruct from other drilling in that area is the gas reservoir appears to be at the very base of this sill. There was something down there no one was expecting.”

What was found was a helium deposit that registered at 10.5%, a concentration 10 times higher than other places.

When the 2011 drilling operation hit the gas pocket, the air screamed “like a jet engine” out of the hole at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour. This continued unabated for five days until the hole could be capped.

Pulsar Helium is now drilling a much larger hole, with the proper equipment for a gas deposit, to determine more information about the exact concentration and hopefully just how much is trapped underground.

Larson said while helium is grabbing the headlines, there was also 75% carbon dioxide in the deposit, which has a value as well. He said Minnesota currently imports all of the carbon dioxide it needs.

“If we can either replicate or improve upon the 10.5% find in 2011 than in the United States and even worldwide, this would be huge,” said Marc Farrington of Pulsar. “Then it will be crucial that we can be here and develop this. We’ve done a lot of thinking and planning for this.”

Farrington said the drilling should reach the deposit in about two weeks.

The appraisal borehole will be drilled to a depth of 686m (2,250 ft) with a contingency in place to extend to 762m (2,500 ft).

A mass spectrometer is on site, providing gas composition every 100 seconds, with gas samples to be collected when zones of helium gas response are encountered.

Drilling the appraisal borehole is the first step in what Pulsar Helium hopes to be a successful helium mine.

The natural gas pocket Pulsar will drill into tested for 10.5% helium back when it was discovered accidentally by a copper-nickel exploration company in 2011.

Larson said in order to take a sample he fashioned a collection device with materials from a local hardware store including a kitchen funnel, vinyl tubing, duct tape and a five gallon container with water in it.

“We assumed it wasn’t explosive but we didn’t have the proper apparatus for collecting the gas,” said Larson. “So I cobbled something together so we could send a sample to a lab.”

The first thought was to look for methane but there was no sign of it, according to Larson.

After samples were taken, the hole was finally filled and capped. And for 13 years it stayed untouched.

But Larson, who was working for Duluth Metals at the time (a predecessor of Twin Metals), took the information to a Canadian mining conference in 2017 where he eventually hooked up with Pulsar officials.

A Minnesota company was created to begin the process of acquiring the land in the area. Keewaydin Resources was the name given to this company, which loosely translates to the north wind in Ojibwe, according to Larson.

The site is located around 12 miles east of Babbitt off the Dunka River Road.

The new drill hole is within 50 feet of the original discovery hole. This time, though, instead of a hole 2.75 inches in diameter, the main hole will be seven inches wide.

On Monday, a drill rig 90 feet tall had already drilled 90 feet down where it hit bedrock. The initial section was sealed off to keep out any water.

Thomas Abraham-James, the president and CEO of Pulsar, said the speed of drilling will increase the deeper they go since the drill uses gravity.

The well being drilled would be retained and used for production should the results be positive.

“Once we know the size of the deposit we can then get into the economic scenarios,” said Abraham-James.

“The objective we have, the whole purpose of this, is when the original discovery was made they were able to take samples and find it was extraordinarily helium-rich at 10.5%,” said Abraham-James. “But all of the testing hasn’t been done. What we’re doing is to replicate that discovery and do all the testing and to go beyond it and see what is there.”

Abraham-James said there may be additional stacked reservoirs as well.

Once the test results are known a feasibility study will be done to determine if a plant can be built.

Just how much permitting will be required is still unknown. Company officials said Monday they are currently working under permits from Lake County and regulations from the state Department of Health. Any chemicals on site are food grade including corn starch.

“There will be no side drilling, no fracking, no chemicals going down the hole, just good old conventional drilling,” said Abraham-James.

Officials from Capstone Drilling said there is equipment on site to close off the hole if anything unexpected is encountered.

Farrington said the company wants to be as transparent as possible.

“We are an open book. It’s really important to inform the locals,” said Farrington. “We want to reach out to people and be as transparent as we can be.”

A town hall will be held in mid to late March in Babbitt to go over the test results.

He said Pulsar is two to three weeks away from knowing the flow rate and the grade of the deposit.

“If things go well here it’s a good thing for the locals, great for the state and even for the U.S.A. But unless people know about it, it’s going to be hard for people to understand what this is all about,” said Farrington.

He said the Greenhouse Gas Protocols are being followed as well.

“This is a low impact site,” said Farrington. “We are actively working, if we get into production, of hitting are carbon neutrality targets ASAP. That’s almost as important as finding something here.”

There may yet be legislation or rule making passed to regulate helium mining in the state.

Abraham-James pointed out they are working on private land but said the company has been working with the DNR for years.

“We put an application in with the state for their lands, but it’s been hurry up and wait,” said Abraham-James. He said so far they have only had to work with Lake County and the Department of Health.

According to the Duluth News-Tribune, the DNR is working with other state agencies to determine which existing rules and regulations are applicable to helium gas extraction.

“To date, we have determined that the Minnesota Department of Health has borehole safety regulations and groundwater protections established in law, but these are not specific to gas production wells,” the DNR said in a statement to the News Tribune. “Similarly, there are no specific requirements for DNR permits or mandatory environmental review categories that apply to Helium gas extraction at this time.

“The DNR is considering options for creating a regulatory structure for nonpetroleum gas extraction, including helium and green fuels such as hydrogen,” the DNR continued. “Through this effort, our goal would be to ensure that proper protections are in place for natural resources and human health, and also ensure that a fair royalty structure benefiting Minnesota schools and communities is in place for any proposed extraction of these gases from state lands.”

Should the test results come back as hoped for, the company hopes to be in production in 18 to 24 months with 20 employees working on the site. Abraham-James said when built the site would resemble a warehouse with the helium capture equipment inside and trucks used to transport the product off site.

Helium is used in MRI machines, in making semiconductor chips found in phones, TVs, computers, tablets as well as welding, fiber optics, airbags and microscopes.

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