People often ignores that besides having the ability to make voices sound strangely hilarious when inhaled, Helium’s features are essential for today’s society. Its low density, low solubility, and high thermal conductivity are crucial for various activities ranging from medicine to space travel.
Helium is obtained as a product of gas and oil exploration, however, due to recent findings, it appears that the gas can be directly extracted from a helium field located in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley, a continental rift system characterized by numerous moving tectonic plates. Scientists believe that it is due to the volcanic activity in this region that has released the light gas from the ancient rocks that had previously trapped them.
Helium is usually accidentally discovered through industrial activities, and U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there is billions of cubic meters worth of helium reserves in the world, and until these findings, scientists were unsure where they might stumble across them. The Tanzanian reserve boasts an incredible 54 billion cubic meters, enough to fill over 1.2 million MRI scanners, which will make a great difference in scientific activity.
Liquid helium is used as a coolant for the magnets in high energy accelerators, such as the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hardon Collider. It’s also used in MRI machines where it’s applied in certain types of welding. Also, in nuclear energy and to help pressurize the tanks in individual rocket engines.
The noble gas is also associated with therapy for respiratory illnesses such as asthma exacerbation, COPD, ARDS, croup, and bronchiolitis. It is for this reason that this discovery is so remarkable. Geologists from Durham and Oxford universities in the UK, along with a Norwegian exploration company, Helium One, have developed a new research approach, which resulted in the helium jackpot found deep within Tanzanian land.
Nice. Scientists discover a huge helium stash in Tanzania — will go a long ways toward easing the global shortage: https://t.co/6V02MTxxEq
— brad plumer (@bradplumer) June 28, 2016
Diveena Danabalan, a researcher at Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences, spoke about the relationship between volcanic activity and helium release: the heat associated with such activity facilitates the release of helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks. However, she warned that if the gas is too closely located to a given volcano, there is a significant risk that the noble gas may be diluted by gasses such as carbon dioxide.
“We are now working to identify the ‘goldilocks-zone’ between the ancient crust and the new volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is just right,” said Danabalan, according to Lab Manager.
According to the New York Times, Oxford Professor Chris Ballentine expressed his excitement of the discovery.
Prof. Ballentine stated that “This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs, and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”
The largest helium reserve was located in Amarillo, Texas, and the 1990s, and the U.S. Congress voted to sell off those reserves, essentially privatizing them. This resulted in fluctuating prices, to the detriment of scientific research as well as international fair trade.
The global helium consumption is about 8 billion cubic feet per annum and the United States Federal Helium Reserve currently holds a reserve of about 24.2 billion cubic feet, making it a small portion of the total known reserves in the country sitting at 153 billion cubic feet.
Helium is consumed far more than it is produced. Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson, a physicist from Cornell University, chaired a 2010 study by National Academy of Sciences and declared that existing helium reserves would be depleted in the next 25 years, meaning that party balloons would cost a shocking $100 per aircraft if prices were determined on an open market basis.
Helium: so much more than just squeaky voices and balloons https://t.co/5hky5OMDKG
— BBC Africa (@BBCAfrica) June 28, 2016
Helium is said to be extracted in the same manner as oil or natural gasses. This means that it will be obtained through the drilling of the Tanzanian Rift Valley. The concern is how to extract it, in its natural form, without tainting it with volcanic gasses. Simultaneously, although this discovery is hugely beneficial for science related disciplines, as well as party balloons across the world, it is unsure to say what this will imply for the country itself about patents and international trade agreements.
Source: Washington Post