Photograph — The Daily Beast

Energy company, Renergen has commissioned South Africa’s first commercial liquefied natural gas (LNG) and liquid helium plant. This makes the country the only African commercial helium producer. South Africa will join 7 other countries in the world that export helium, alongside the United States and Qatar.

Chinese equipment company, Western Shell Cryogenic Equipment Co. (WSCE) has been contracted to supply technology and equipment for the plant. EPCM Bonisana, on the other hand, will install the pipeline and manage the interface.

A $40 million loan was approved in February this year by the U.S government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to provide capital for the project. This came after Renergen announced it had discovered reserves of up to 11 percent helium concentrations.

The 187,000-hectare helium/NG field in Virginia, near Welkom, has proven reserves of 25 billion cubic feet of Natural Gas and Helium. It is the first and only onshore petroleum (and natural gas) in South Africa capable of supplying Helium to numerous specialized and industrial markets.

The discovery and commercialization of the Free State Onshore Helium source is a development in the industry, healthcare and economy of South Africa. The signing of this agreement will support South Africa’s self-sufficiency in terms of Helium production.

South Africa uses about 350 kg of helium a day, which is largely consumed by the medical industry for magnetic resonance imaging machines, fibre optics and electronics such as microchips. However, operations are expected to commence from 2021, with a daily production of 645.3 tons of LNG and 350 kg of helium.

Helium can be used to cool superconducting magnets in medical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, as well as lifting gas in balloons, airships, as a gas to breathe in deep-sea diving and in keeping satellite instruments cool.

But even though helium although the second most abundant gas in the universe, it’s relatively scarce and tends to be found trapped with natural gas in relatively low concentrations typically up to 1 percent by volume of the gas released.

The global demand for helium is projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 3-4 percent between 2019–2024, mainly driven by its increasing demand in diverse and emerging applications such as computer hard drives and hybrid air vehicles.

One of the major uses of helium is in the provision of medical services. With China’s growing middle class now getting access to better healthcare, the demand pressures are compounding, making this discovery a globally significant one for South Africa in the helium market.

By Faith Ikade.

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