Researchers from Norway and the United Kingdom have discovered huge deposits of helium in Tanzania, East Africa. Helium is a naturally occurring gas that holds special importance for its use in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners at hospitals around the world. It is an important component in the production of space crafts, nuclear reactors, and telescopes; it is also used in arc welding and the balloon industry.
Formed by the slow and continuous radioactive decay of terrestrial rock, helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. It is exceedingly rare on Earth, however. Until the recent discovery in Tanzania, helium had only been found – often accidentally – in small quantities during oil and gas drilling operations.
The world is currently in the middle of a helium shortage with existing stockpiles of the gas fast depleting. Its price has gone up 500% in the last 15 years with a litre reportedly costing $15 in 2015. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson famously made a forecast that the world would run out of the gas by 2040.
However, scientists adopting and testing a recently developed exploration method have discovered large quantities of helium within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. Experts put the amount of helium found in one section of the valley at an estimated 54 billion cubic feet, more than enough to fill 1.2 million hospital MRI scanners.
The researchers explain the occurrence of the deposits saying that volcanic activity in the Rift Valley releases helium buried in ancient rocks, which rises up and becomes trapped in shallower gas fields. Researchers are now working on finding the best spot to drill to extract the gas deposits.
Commenting on the new finds, Prof. Chris Ballentine of the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences said: “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. Many in the scientific community equally believe the same strategy applied to discovering the Tanzanian deposits can be applied to other parts of the world with a similar geological history.”