Helio: South Africa finds a new "gold"
On a grassy plain in South Africa, once the world's largest gold producer, prospectors have stumbled upon a new treasure: helium.
Popularly known for birthday balloons and shrill voices, helium plays an underrated role in medical scanners, superconductors, and space travel.
It is also rare: it is produced in fewer than 10 countries and is often treated as a waste product in natural gas wells.
Natural gas is what Stefano Marani and Nick Mitchell had in mind when they bought the gas rights to this 87,000 hectare piece of land in the Free State province in 2012 for just $ 1.
When they tested their gas findings, they discovered unusually high amounts of helium mixed with the gas, meaning their dollar investment could be worth billions.
His company Renergen is almost ready to start producing both natural gas and helium, putting South Africa on an elite map with helium reserves that could be the richest and cleanest in the world.
Those first tests revealed helium concentrations of two to four percent. In the United States, helium is mined in concentrations as low as 0.3 percent.
"That's when we knew we had something special," Marani said. "It really was the right place, the right time."
Further exploration has found concentrations of up to 12 percent, Renergen says.
Other important producers are Qatar and Algeria.
- 'Is big' -
The global helium market was worth $ 10.6 billion in 2019, according to Research and Markets. Since few countries produce helium, supplies are frequently disrupted.
Renergen estimates that its helium reserve could be as much as 9.74 billion cubic meters, larger than known reserves in the entire United States.
That's enough to fill about 1.4 billion party balloons.
If proven, Marani said those reserves would be worth more than $ 100 billion (86 million euros). The most conservative estimates remain substantial at 920 million cubic meters.
Chris Ballentine, chair of geochemistry at the University of Oxford, said helium is generally produced as part of liquefied natural gas operations.
Companies often treat it as an advantage, if they bother to separate it.
What sets the find apart from South Africa is how the gas is extracted.
Natural gas is often made by hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects water, sand, and chemicals into the bedrock at high pressure to split it up and release trapped oil and gas.
But fracking also pollutes groundwater and causes small earthquakes that can ruin nearby houses and buildings.
"We don't do fracking," Marani said. "Our rock has already cracked, there is a giant fracture underground. So when we drill, we are literally drilling just in that giant fracture where the gas is and then the gas is naturally escaping without any stimulus."
Renergen plans to have 19 wells installed early next year. The gas that is currently extracted is used as compressed natural gas in a pilot project to power the buses.
Eventually, the plant will process liquefied natural gas for domestic use and liquid helium for export around the world.
Keeping helium as a liquid requires cooling it to near absolute zero.
Those temperatures, combined with the fact that helium doesn't burn or interact with other gases, make it useful for cooling incredibly hot things. Magnets in MRI scanners, for example, or rocket engines.
Helium demand and prices have more than doubled in the last 30 years. As helium uses multiply, nations around the world are increasingly concerned with ensuring a constant supply.
Russia, Tanzania and the United States have been looking to develop new reserves.
Eventually, helium production at the South African site could rise to five tons per day, about seven percent of the planet's current helium production, Marani said.
"It's big," he said. "It is quite significant by global standards."
Source: African News