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Helium discovery averts impending shortage

Scientists have found ‘life-saving’ reserves of helium in Tanzania. The discovery is a huge relief since the current world’s supply is running out. Helium’s essential uses are not common knowledge to most of us hence the question why this discovery is getting much press attention. Helium has a variety of uses including use in nuclear energy, MRI scanners, in the space industry to keep satellite instrument cool and to clean rockets. The gas is often used to fill weather and party balloons and airships because of its low density. A mixture of 80% helium and 20% oxygen is used in deep sea diving and other works under pressurised conditions. Helium-neon gas lasers are used in scan barcodes at supermarket checkouts.

Another interesting aspect of the discovery is that scientists have found a new and efficient method of exploring the gas. Typically, helium discovery is accidental, found when drilling for natural gas or oil. Scientists have now established that volcanic activity provides extreme temperature necessary to release helium from ancient rocks. In the case of Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, where the deposits were found, volcanic activity in the area has pushed the gas out of deep rocks into shallower gas fields. However if the gas is trapped close to a given volcano, they can be depleted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide. Diveena Danablan of Durham University’s department of earth sciences notes that using the newly discovered knowledge, they are going to identify the goldilocks-zone between modern volcanoes and ancient crust, where the balance between volcanic dilution and helium release is just right.

The price of helium has gone up 500% in 15 years. The steep rise has happened despite the discovery of a huge natural gas field in Qatar. Gluvas notes that it is imperative to continue finding more. The steady decline in global reserves had at one time raised concerns among doctors, resulting in a call for a ban on the gas usage in party balloons. During a British Association meeting held last year anaesthetist, Told Doldphin noted that this invaluable, irreplaceable gas was literally being handed to children in balloons, for a few minutes of entertainment. One Nobel laureate, the Late Robert Richardson, had at one time noted that helium balloons should cost $75 each to reflect the actual cost of the gas.

By combining seismic images of gas trapping structure with the new understanding of helium geochemistry, the Tanzania field is estimated to hold 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) in just one area of the Rift Valley. This is sufficient to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.

The Global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year. The United State Federal Helium Reserves, which is the largest supplier, currently has about 24.2 BCf. The Total reserves in the USA are estimated at 153 BCf. Chris Ballentine, a professor in the department of earth sciences at Oxford University, notes that the discovery is a game changer for the future security of society’s helium use. Geologist Jon Gluyas of Durham University notes that although the Tanzania gas field is large, it is only a small part of what the entire Rift Valley may contain. He further notes that they will have to collect additional data to achieve high levels of confidence – but the reserve should be considered a significant global discovery.

With the importance of volcanic activity in helium releases having been discovered, prospects are expected to be looking for areas of volcanic activity combined with possible gas trapping structure with the aim of exploring potential reserves.

Featured Image Credi: the gurdian

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