The Race to Find ‘Green’ Helium

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.

“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.

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