In 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 squeaky voices, helium plays an underappreciated role in medical scanners, superconductors, and space travel.
It’s also rare—produced by fewer than 10 countries and often treated as a waste product in natural gas wells.
Natural gas is what Stefano Marani and Nick Mitchell had on their minds when they bought gas rights on this 87,000-hectare piece of land in the Free State province in 2012, for just $1.
When they had their gas finds tested, they discovered unusually high amounts of helium mixed in with the gas that mean their dollar investment could be worth billions.
Their company Renergen is almost ready to start producing both natural gas and helium, placing 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 extracted at concentrations as low as 0.3 percent.
“That was when we knew we had something special,” Marani said. “It really was right place, right time.”