Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Africa's Natural Wealth

Helium is used in MRI scanners, nuclear research facilities, and for specific industrial tasks such as leak detection. Vast amounts are needed to keep superconducting magnets cool at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva. The discovery of a vast reserve of helium in east Africa has allayed fears of a global shortage of this precious gas.

According to independent analysts, the natural store of helium found in the Rift valley in Tanzania contains an estimated 54bn cubic feet of the noble gas, enough to inflate a similar number of party balloons, or to fill 1,200,000 hospital MRI scanners, researchers said. A team from the UK and Norway uncovered the huge resource after applying expertise gleaned from oil and gas exploration to understand how helium is produced in rocks under the ground and where it accumulates.

“This is a significant find,” said Jon Gluyas, professor of geo-energy at Durham University and a member of the discovery team. “There are reserves of helium gas, but they have been depleting quite quickly. The price has gone up 500% in 15 years.” The steep rise has occurred despite the discovery of a huge natural gas field in Qatar that contains a small percentage of helium gas. “We have to keep finding more, it’s not renewable or replaceable,” he added.

The steady decline in global helium reserves concerned some doctors so much that they had called for a ban on its use in party balloons. At a British Medical Association meeting last year anaesthetist Tom Dolphin told delegates: “This invaluable, irreplaceable gas is being literally handed to children in balloons so they can be entertained for a few minutes until they get bored and let go.” One Nobel laureate, the late Robert Richardson, said in 2012 that helium balloons should cost £75 each to reflect the true cost of the gas.

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