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Sunday, February 25, 2024

The Race to Find ‘Green’ Helium

Deep within the grasslands of southwestern Tanzania, seven men were gathered on a gravel patch the size of a tennis court. They wore white helmets and yellow, oil-smudged overalls, giving the impression of melting popsicles in the night’s dry heat. Next to them was the reason they’d flown in from around the world: their drill rig, a 35-ton, 50-foot-high mast that pierced the sky. For three weeks, the drill had been drudging through layers of thick, gloopy clay, but now, at a depth of 1,800 feet, it had found an expanse of porous red sandstone and was picking up speed. While two men scrutinized the rig’s progress on a set of dials, the others gathered lengths of stainless steel pipe from a nearby storage trailer. Hazem Trigui, a scientist who worked the night shift, watched from the smoking area, puffing on a cigarette.

It was July 2021, the beginning of the drill team’s second month in the Rukwa Basin, a sparsely populated agricultural plain nearly the size of Fiji. The team wasn’t after gold or crude oil or natural gas; they were looking for helium, a noble gas being released in huge quantities by the ancient granitic rock beneath them. Helium is abundant—the second-most-abundant element in the universe—but on Earth it is rare. Because it is the smallest and the second-lightest element, it’s a master escape artist, slipping out of whatever container it’s in, even our atmosphere. Helium is also very useful. It has the lowest boiling point and freezing point of any other known substance. And unlike hydrogen, its lighter and more abundant neighbor on the periodic table, it doesn’t go boom at the slightest provocation. All these characteristics have made it a critical resource in much of the technology that modern society relies on, from the semiconductor chips in computers and mobile phones to fiber-optic cables, MRI scanners, and rockets. There is no space race or high-speed internet without it.

Helium forms within Earth’s crust through radioactive decay, a process so slow that on a human timescale it’s considered a finite resource. (A block of uranium the size of a candy bar would take roughly 500 million years to produce enough helium to fill a party balloon.) For more than a century, it has been mined as a minor byproduct of natural gas extraction. But in the decades to come, as the world moves away from hydrocarbons and demand for helium grows in step with the aerospace, computing, and medical industries, there’s a looming possibility of a major shortage.

The Rukwa Basin is one potentially significant new source of helium. Here, the helium is “green”—naturally mixed with nitrogen, which can be safely vented into the atmosphere. The future of a stable helium supply is likely to depend on non-hydrocarbon sources like this, and now there’s a race to find them.

The team of drillers had been sent by Helium One, a startup founded in 2015. Of the 30 or so companies exploring for helium deposits around the world, Helium One’s mission has the greatest potential to hit it big. That’s because the company believes the Rukwa Basin may be the site of one of the largest accumulations of helium the world has ever known—with a market value of as much as $50 billion, enough to satisfy global demand for around two decades. Helium exploration is such a nascent industry that there is no blueprint exploration strategy, so the chance of success is low, and the gas is especially hard to mine because of its containment problem. But the project has the potential to bring stability to the world’s helium supply and define how and where the world looks for helium deposits.

As the purr of the rig’s diesel engine reverberated around the drill site, Trigui returned to his mobile laboratory, a dusty portacabin filled with microscopes and rock samples. Checking the data on his computer, he saw something he’d been waiting for since his arrival in Rukwa: The gas spectrometer was detecting a spike in helium levels in the rock they were drilling through. This is what’s known as a “gas show.” Trigui kicked open the cabin door and walked over to the sump, where mud pumped up from the drill face was pooling. It was bubbling like a jacuzzi.

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“It’s here,” he said to himself. “The helium is here!”

Trigui took a video of the bubbling mud on his phone and excitedly messaged his colleagues back at camp. Over another cigarette break, he chatted with the drill team; nobody had seen anything like this before. They believed they’d unearthed the world’s first major deposit of “green” helium, and the first sizable helium deposit at all since 1967.

The bubbles continued to surface until 2 am, as the drill bore down another 30 feet. Then, suddenly, it lost all torque. The engine changed tone from a low drone to a high-pitched hum. The drillers looked on, bewildered.

The drill bit—a 6-inch-thick spiral of stainless steel and tungsten—is connected to the motor by a series of steel pipes that screw together to form what’s called a string. One of the joints in the string had sheared off. The team had no choice but to pull it out of the hole, leaving 300 feet of pipe, and the bit, still down there.

As the sun rose, David Minchin, Helium One’s CEO, awoke at camp. Not yet aware of the setback, he saw Trigui’s helium data on his computer screen and immediately thought, This will be the best day of my life. He threw on trousers, leapt out of his tent, and called out a cheerful “Good morning!” to Randy Donald, the drill site supervisor.

“You haven’t heard?” Donald said.

“Heard what?” Minchin replied.

“It’s not good. It’s really not good.”

In the 1950s, a geologist named T. C. James travelled extensively in what is now called Tanzania. As the chief mining geologist in the British-administered Geological Survey Department of Tanganyika, it was his job to develop a better understanding for the country’s geology by identifying such things as arable land and mineral deposits. On one of these trips, James sampled a gas-bearing thermal spring near the tiny village of Itumbula, in the Rukwa Basin, that had intrigued the local people for centuries.

James’ findings told him that these gases were extremely rich in helium, but he thought nothing of it. At the time, helium was readily available. The National Helium Reserve, a giant geological helium storage unit created by the United States government in 1925 by recovering helium from gas fields in the Texas Panhandle, was approaching its peak. With billions of cubic feet of crude helium stored, and demand for it still to mature, there was no reason to pursue the gas in a remote location lacking the basic infrastructure—roads, power, running water—required to develop a project.

By 1996, however, the reserve was in debt. Congress instructed its operator, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to halt production and offer for sale the entirety of the stockpile at a price that would recover the costs of developing it. The effect of this was to artificially depress market prices and financially disincentivize anyone from exploring for helium, so until recently it has only been found incidentally, by petroleum companies scouting rock formations for hydrocarbons. For decades, then, as much as 80 percent of the world’s helium has originated from only around 10 natural gas facilities in the United States, Qatar, and Algeria.

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Today, the global supply chain for helium is fragile, and that makes the gas a volatile commodity, which in turn can hamper scientific research and industrial production. While I was writing this story, Algeria’s Skikda Plant and the National Helium Reserve temporarily dropped offline, shutting down around 25 percent of the global supply. Cliff Cain, president of a consultancy group for industrial gas, told me his clients were forced to suddenly scale back their manufacturing, and scientists had to delay research dependent on helium. In 2012, a more serious shortage famously forced Tokyo Disneyland to suspend the sale of their Mickey Mouse–shaped balloons. End users don’t have reserves to dip into, because helium is extremely difficult and expensive to store.

Next year, the BLM is expected to finally complete its sell-off of the National Helium Reserve. After that, prices are likely to soar and the US government will have to source helium from the private sector. (The other major source of helium in the US, ExxonMobil’s LaBarge field in Wyoming, may be vulnerable to environmental policy because the gas composition is 65 percent carbon dioxide.) Without new, large-scale sources of helium, it’s a probability that increasing global demand will rely on Qatar, whose antagonistic neighbors have previously blocked exports, and Russia, where new production is slowly coming online. In the short term, Russia’s production is likely to produce a temporary oversupply of helium—but when natural gas production winds down, demand for helium is sure to catch up. “We’re walking into a world where the West has no control over one of the most valuable strategic commodities,” Cain says.

The impending helium shortage has long been anticipated. Ten years ago, while BLM was running down the reserve, demand for helium was climbing sharply. The private producers Congress expected to be online were delayed or never appeared, and prices shot up. As it became possible to drill for helium profitably, an assortment of explorers, entrepreneurs, and wildcatters—those who drill exploratory wells outside of existing gas fields—sensed an opportunity to earn a buck.

Among the first were Josh Bluett and Thomas Abraham-James, exploration geologists who met in Brisbane, Australia. While on a road trip in 2013 around Tanzania’s northern regions, Bluett paged through a pamphlet he found in the backseat of Abraham-James’ Toyota Land Cruiser. It was Industrial Minerals in Tanzania: An Investor’s Guide, a government-issued summary of the country’s deposits. In it he read about reports written by T. C. James on the thermal springs. James had documented that the gases spewing out of many of these springs were between 4 and 17.9 percent helium. Natural gas fields seldom come close to 1 percent.

Through his work on helium-rich petroleum fields in Australia, Bluett knew these concentrations were abnormally high. He and Abraham-James headed to Tanzania’s Geological Survey office in central Dodoma to find the original reports. The numbers matched.

“It was the most intoxicating moment I’ve ever had,” Abraham-James told me.

The Rukwa Basin was showing higher surface concentrations of helium than almost anywhere known in the world. But an emission of helium vapor from hot springs isn’t valuable in itself; the gas has to be pooled in the ground to be usable. Finding geological structures that are able to trap helium is the tricky part, says Bo Sears, author of Helium: The Disappearing Element. “Surface helium doesn’t mean guaranteed accumulation,” he told me. “If you see 10 butterflies on the way to work, it doesn’t mean there is a butterfly sanctuary just around the corner.”

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Bluett and Abraham-James approached Chris Ballentine, a professor at Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, and Jon Gluyas, at Durham University, among the first researchers to study where to find helium deposits. They concluded that the area “has all the tick-boxes” of a working helium system, Gluyas told me, because the crust is rich in radioactive elements like potassium and thorium and it’s the right age to have built up huge quantities of helium.

Typically, the majority of the helium that forms in the crust remains trapped in its lattices, unless there’s a mechanism to release it. But the Rukwa Basin is part of the East African Rift, a series of volcanic valleys formed as Earth’s plates have pulled apart. As magma rises up between these diverging plates, it heats the crust and frees the helium, producing huge pulses that slowly migrate up to the surface. The Rukwa Basin, Gluyas and Ballentine believe, falls into a “Goldilocks zone”: It’s close enough to volcanic heating for the helium to be released from the crust in huge quantities but far enough away to avoid it being diluted with volcanic gases like carbon dioxide on its way upwards.

The challenge with helium is how you capture it on its migration. For an accumulation to form, a rare set of conditions needs to be in place: a porous rock that holds the gas in and an impermeable capstone to prevent it from continuing upwards. (Sears likens helium exploration to playing Texas hold’em and going all in with each hand. “It could take 20 wells until you find that sweet spot.”)

The billion-dollar question with helium will almost always be the capstone, because its tiny atoms bleed through the smallest of pores in just about any rock. “Think of the seal like a fishing net,” Peter Barry, an American geochemist who worked with Bluett and Abraham-James, told me. “It works perfectly for any decent-sized fish. And that’s what we are looking at when dealing with natural gas.” Helium, though, “can swim right through the net.”

Here again, Tanzania’s geology helped. As Bluett and Abraham-James dug deeper into T. C. James’ report, they realized many of the seeps he’d sampled were dotted around the margins of rift basins, where the layers of sedimentary rock, including porous sandstone and impermeable clays, could in theory hold the gas and seal it in. With Rukwa, it seemed they’d found the winning formula.

In September 2015, Bluett and Abraham-James launched Helium One. The next three years brought excitement and frustration. They sampled the gases from the Itumbula springs and found what Barry called “a shedload of helium.” Then, a legal squabble with an oil company nearly bankrupted the company.

Another hurdle came in July 2017, when Tanzanian authorities slapped a mining giant named Acacia with a $40 billion bill for unpaid taxes plus an additional $150 billion in interest and penalties. The laws governing mining in the country are imprecise and opaque, and the scandal incited fears among private mining companies that the government would use legal ambiguities to generate revenue. Investors were discouraged, and raising more money for Helium One became impossible. “We were operating in a taboo country with an element that nobody understood,” Abraham-James told me.

By 2018, though, Helium One had soldiered on, and identified 21 geological structures that could potentially trap the gas under the Rukwa Basin, based on some seismic scans of the subsurface—essentially a giant ultrasound of the ground—and drilling data from when Amoco, now part of BP, had briefly explored the basin for oil in the ’80s. According to an independent assessment by SRK Consulting, these structures could potentially be bottling up as much as 138 billion cubic feet of helium. But the only way to truly know how much helium was economically recoverable was to put a hole in the ground.

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Minchin, a seasoned geologist, was hired as Helium One’s CEO in August 2020. He quickly listed the company on the London Stock Exchange to raise the necessary funds to renew the company’s exploration licenses. In May, when I visited him at his home in the countryside around London, he led me out to his garden, where he keeps some of his favorite rocks. He pointed to the holes in a piece of sandstone, like the bubbles of a honeycomb candy bar, and explained to me that this is the reservoir rock where helium could be found. He then showed me a piece of shale, like that which sits on top of the sandstone in the Rukwa Basin and seals the gas in.

Minchin, who is 40, grew up in a village in Wales and spent his childhood poking around abandoned silver mines in the Cambrian Mountains. Wondering how people had known where to dig, he took a job after graduating from university as an exploration geologist. In 2013, as a director for a private equity group focused on mineral exploration in Africa, he dreamed of starting his own mine—not just any mine, but one that was focused on renewable materials. He became fascinated by once-overlooked commodities like cobalt and lithium that were rapidly becoming indispensable as the world moved away from fossil fuels.

In 2018, through an old Danish palaeontology journal, Minchin says he discovered Europe’s largest deposit of vanadium, worth billions of dollars in today’s prices, outside of the Swedish village of Hörby. The coveted metal is used in redox-flow batteries, which store excess charge from intermittent sources like solar and wind and feed it back to the grid. But his company, ScandiVanadium, encountered resistance from local landowners, who attempted to revoke Minchin’s exploration permits and block the company from extracting anything from the ground. Minchin’s investors pulled out.

The job offer from Helium One came at an opportune time—though Minchin knew that wildcat exploration always presents significant financial risk, and Tanzania remains a challenging place to operate. This is particularly true in Rukwa, where a lack of basic infrastructure makes running an operation inordinately complicated and expensive. A 2020 survey of mining companies ranked Tanzania the third-least-attractive jurisdiction for mining and exploration in the world; in 2019 it was the worst.

Recognizing these challenges, and remembering his time in Sweden, Minchin has worked hard to cultivate enthusiasm for the project within the country. On a regional level, he has promised financial support for four secondary schools and paid thousands of landowners for access to their property. Many locals have welcomed the opportunity for work. Among Tanzania’s higher echelons, Magufuli’s successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, expressed support for helium extraction in her inauguration speech. Royalties from helium could reportedly be worth more than 11 percent of Tanzania’s annual GDP.

After raising about $8 million through a public share offering, Minchin’s first move was to commission a seismic campaign to better define geological structures that could potentially trap the gas on its journey upwards. Down in the basin’s Karoo rock formation, a series of horizontal bands of clay and sandstone beginning at around 2,400 feet down, the data showed a structure that Minchin called Tai, meaning “eagle” in Swahili. An elongated dome on three sides, with a fault line on the fourth, Minchin believed it would be a textbook structure for the gas to pool. Tai-1, Helium One’s first exploration well, would aim to drill through the crest and into the red sandstone below. He didn’t expect to see any shows above this because the ground probably wouldn’t be consolidated enough to keep it in.

It was a solid plan, but Minchin threw together a piecemeal and underskilled operation. He called on colleagues from his previous expeditions, giving each one shares and telling them they could be rich. To save money, he cut corners, forgoing an independent specialist to treat the drilling fluid. Most damningly, he used an exploration rig designed for minerals rather than for oil and gas. An oil and gas rig would have cost him around $5 million per hole and taken just 10 days to drill; he, on the other hand, was drilling over three weeks on less than $1.5 million. “We are the underdogs,” he told me, “because we just don’t have access to massive pots of capital.”

At camp, Minchin watched Trigui’s video of the bubbling mud over and over. The promise of the gas almost seemed to outweigh the snapped drill string. But the “gas show” was just the first step. What Minchin needed was a “discovery”—a quantity of helium large enough to cover the costs of pulling it out of the ground. He felt sure it was there. He’d preemptively drafted a press release confirming it. He and his wife began looking for a new house. Nobody had expected to see evidence of helium accumulations without a proper seal, so he was convinced there would be even more in the Karoo. “This system is absolutely juiced,” he said. “There’s more helium than we ever imagined!”

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For all of Minchin’s optimism, though, he knew that Helium One was some way from a discovery. He’d need to run tests to precisely determine the size of the accumulation and, crucially, how much of it could potentially be extracted. But none of this data could be acquired with the pipe still down there.

Three days later, Donald, the drill site supervisor, tried to retrieve the broken pipe, lodged 1,600 feet deep. The team would attempt a delicate operation known as fishing: They’d lower a tapered spear the size of a forearm into the hole, maneuver it into the string, and rotate it to cut a thread, gripping the pipe from the inside and allowing them to hoist up the whole mess. When they got down there, though, they found that the drill had damaged the integrity of the hole, so the pipes were stuck at an angle against the side; grasping them from above was impossible. “It’s time to pull out,” the rig manager said. “It’s done.”

As the team dispersed, Minchin lit a cigarette. He puffed his cheeks, exhaled, then slammed his helmet to the ground. As it bounced and rolled over the gravel, nobody dared react.

“We’re going to lose this fucking hole,” Minchin said. “We’re going to lose the helium!”

As Minchin drove back to camp, he watched the drill rig become smaller and smaller in his rearview mirror. His mind drifted back to the disappointment in Sweden, all that vanadium abandoned in the ground. The next day, in need of an emotional lift, Minchin headed to the springs in Itumbula village, where T. C. James had taken his gas samples nearly 70 years earlier. It was a hot afternoon, and he took off his shoes and waded out in a murky lake beside some salt ponds, aiming for a stream of bubbles some distance out from the shore.

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Minchin wanted to see where the Helium One journey had started. He collected the bubbles in an empty water bottle as they migrated to the surface, planning to test the samples in his lab. Away from the stress of the drill site, he felt a sense of awe. There’s no great reward without risk, he told himself.

Back on the shore, he pictured T. C. James wading out to the springs to gather this gas. From this thought, Minchin reflected on the positive change that this helium could bring. It was like seeing gold growing on trees—all he needed was the right ladder. “The helium is down there,” he muttered to himself. “I can just sense it.”

In the following days, after further efforts to recover the hole failed, Minchin convened an emergency team meeting, with Helium One’s board members calling in from Canada, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. His bellowing voice was heard by everyone around camp. When the meeting ended, he drafted a company statement announcing that the hole had been abandoned. The core team would probably go down to half-salary and others would be let go. In his last hours in the country, he took a walk in the woodlands.

Since Minchin returned home from Tanzania in August, he says he’s often thought of George Reynolds, the forgotten pioneer of oil in the Middle East. In 1901, William Knox D’Arcy, a millionaire London socialite, negotiated with the shah of Persia the right to explore, obtain, and sell oil over a territory that included most of modern-day Iran. Reynolds, a self-taught English geologist, was hired to become his man on the ground.

When drilling began, a year later, the first two wells were a disappointment. By 1908, Knox D’Arcy had decided to call it quits. He sent a telegram to Reynolds, ordering him to cease work, but Reynolds ignored it. Six days later, Reynolds unearthed Masjid Soleiman, the first big petroleum find in the Middle East. Within a year, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which became British Petroleum, was in business, kicking off a wave of exploration in the region.

By drilling the same hole again and deflecting off the stranded drill string, Minchin’s team did eventually reach Tai, and hit five more gas shows—but the drill bit had damaged the hole, so they couldn’t lower the tools to test the shows. When they skidded the drill rig over 20 feet and drilled down again, there was no evidence of helium at all. They were never able to confirm a discovery. “I think we chased it away,” Minchin told me over the phone.

Minchin’s optimism for the existence of sizable accumulations of helium under the basin was understandable. Whether he’d be the one to find them, though, was more doubtful. For millions of dollars in sunk cost, he knows little more than that the basin is a prolific source of helium; a discovery will be hard, particularly in Rukwa, where the cost of production would be as high as anywhere in the world. With each dry hole it becomes harder to continue his search, and perhaps the most salient question is whether Helium One’s shareholders will hold out.

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In some ways, Helium One’s problems are symptomatic of a wider issue. Current helium prices are high, but not so high as to enable companies to spend tens or hundreds of millions on speculative exploration. Until the economics change, discoveries in unexplored areas like Rukwa are likely to remain uncommon. And without a major “green” discovery, global helium demand will one day outstrip supply.

Right now “the oil and gas market is the only thing big enough to justify spending billions on seismic surveys and drilling wells,” says Nicholas Snyder, the chairman and CEO of North American Helium, a “green” helium exploration company. The company prospects for helium reserves in Saskatchewan. The province is hydrocarbon country, dotted with tens of thousands of wells. Since he founded the company in 2013, Snyder said, they’d uncovered at least five new helium fields and brought two of them into production—but this has only been possible because they’ve had access to $200 million worth of previously collected seismic data. “We can piggy-back off other people,” Snyder said.

As I talked with Minchin about this seeming economic impasse in a quiet London pub, he responded with characteristic optimism. The team had made mistakes, he said, but it is rare to succeed on a first try. Soon he would fly to the Middle East to speak to a potential investor. “The basin is more than 1,000 square miles, and we’ve drilled a 3-inch hole,” he told me. “The helium is there, but we just need to get it.”

He was gearing up for another expedition in the spring.


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