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Helium gas field in Tanzania discovered as global supplies set to run out within 20 years

June 29, 2016 6:32 AM
17 0

It may be best known for filling party balloons, but helium is a vital resource for science, medicine and industry and the global supply is declining.

Professor Chris Ballentine, from the University of Oxford, said given the current reserves, helium will be set to run out in 15 to 20 years.

"Which given the lead in time for building and finding new supplies is just a little bit too short," Professor Ballentine said.

Professor Ballentine was part of the team of UK scientists who worked with a Norwegian helium exploration company to make a new discovery in East Africa.

The team found a helium gas field in the Rift Valley of Tanzania which is expected to significantly boost the global helium reserve.

It is the first time a helium supply has been actively sought out and found.

"All helium to this point that's been produced has always been found by accident," he said.

"And that's all well and good, but if you actually want helium and you want that seriously and you want a good supply of helium you need to go out and look for it."

Liquid helium is used to cool superconducting magnets in the Large Hadron Collider and in MRI machines.

Other uses of helium include cleaning out rocket engines and filling balloons.

Professor Ballentine said an estimated 54 billion cubic feet of helium had been found in Tanzania, equivalent to about seven years of global helium consumption.

"Helium, just like hydrogen, is a really light gas and once you use it, it vents into the atmosphere. It is light enough to escape into space so we can never reuse it, we can never recapture it," he said.

"And if you want our society to have medical scanners and all of these other fantastic bits of high technology we need to keep that supply going.

"Without helium security we run the risk of having helium shortages which we have actually seen in the last five or 10 years, where supply has not met demand."

While helium is prevalent in the universe, Professor Ballentine said it has been difficult to find on earth.

"It's so inert and so light that when the planet formed it managed to exclude all of the light gases, especially helium.

"So the Earth formed without any significant helium and the helium we have on Earth today is formed by the natural radioactivity found in rocks, uranium and thorium found in tiny, tiny levels in rocks will decay and form helium.

"And it's that helium that has built up over time that we're now looking for."

Dr Cathy Foley, science director and deputy director manufacturing at the CSIRO, said Australian industries rely on helium.

"In Australia the need for liquid helium is quite high and growing all the time because we've got a great health system, and also because we've got absolutely fantastic research which uses this," she said.

"And a really good example is the work that's being done in many places, our development of quantum computers which is the future of quantum systems, data and information.

"Being able to solve really big problems will really rely on the ability to have liquid helium," Dr Foley said.

She said it was an indispensible resource that should be used responsibly.

"It is still a limited supply just like the Earth is limited and we shouldn't waste resources, even though some of them haven't been discovered yet, we need to be very responsible in the way we use and reuse any material like helium."


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