Helium’s unique combination of physical and chemical characteristics make it a high value, non-renewable commodity with numerous applications in crucial fields of industry and technology.
Helium (atomic number 2) is a colourless, odourless, non-toxic, inert (noble) gas and is the second lightest and second most abundant element (after hydrogen) in the universe. With the lowest boiling point of any element (-268.9°C or -452.1°F) and as a non-reactive gas (unlike hydrogen), it lends itself well to cryogenic applications such as cooling superconducting magnets in MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectrometers as well as being used as a shielding gas in welding and in semiconductor manufacturing where an inert atmosphere is required. Beyond this, its lightness and low reactivity allow it to be used for leak detection and purging/pressurizing rocket propulsion systems.
This combination of characteristics places helium as a unique commodity with numerous high-value and high-tech applications. Helium is listed on critical materials list for the US and the EU, as well as China and other major economies.
There is no way of manufacturing helium artificially, nor can it be commercially extracted from the atmosphere. Helium is made by the slow and steady radioactive decay of elements within ancient continental crust. It is released when this ancient crust is broken up by powerful plate tectonic forces, as occurs within the East African Rift valley.
Drilling for helium is nearly identical to the process of drilling for natural gas, allowing for the transfer of knowledge and technology from the oil and gas sector. At Rukwa the wells targeting helium are simple vertical wells, they don’t necessitate the higher-spec (and more costly) rigs required to drill longer and deeper horizontal wells.
As a high-value product, liquid helium can be transported via ISO containers mounted onto trucks with no pipelines necessary.