Tanzania's Helium Discovery Impacts Medical Community

| by Sarah Zimmerman
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In the middle of a worldwide helium shortage, scientists are rejoicing at the discovery of a huge underground helium reserve in Tanzania's East African Rift Valley.

Helium, an inert gas, is extremely difficult to come by, and has previously only been found accidentally through gas and oil drilling, according to CBC News. The gas is essential for airships, scuba diving tanks, MRI scanners, welding and industrial leak detection.

Worldwide helium supplies have been quickly dwindling and scientists have estimated they could disappear completely by 2035 or 2040. In 2015, the British Medical Association went as far to campaign for a ban on helium for unnecessary uses, like party balloons.

A researcher behind the recent discovery in Africa, Chris Ballentine, is calling this new find a "game-changer for the future security of society's helium needs."

Scientists from the U.K. partnered with Norwegian exploration company Helium One to research the volcanically active East African Rift Valley for natural supplies of helium. Volcanoes often have natural reserves of helium nearby, according to Popular Science. The researchers found the reserve on their first try, and Ballentine claimed the gas was "just bubbling out of the ground."

While active volcanoes seem to be essential for the formation of helium reserves, not all volcanoes provide usable helium. The heat from the volcanic activity forces helium to be released from ancient crustal rocks. But if the gas traps are too close to the volcano itself, the helium that bubbles out will likely be mixed with volcanic gas and unusable, according to Popular Science.

More research is needed if scientists want to pinpoint the exact location of untainted helium reserves. But, for now, the helium found in Tanzania will be used to refill the world's current and small supply of helium. Ballentine claims the quantity of helium found in Africa is "enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners."

Ballentine added, "To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 billion cubic feet per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world's largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. [We found] a probable resource of 54 BCf in just one part of the rift valley."

Sources: CBC News, Popular Science / Photo credit: Victor/Flickr


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