Huge helium reserve found in Tanzania could help save lives

28 Jun 2016

In the face of dwindling reserves, the discovery of a huge underground reserve of helium beneath the African state of Tanzania could have life-changing implications for the production of critical medical equipment.

The discovery of such a helium reserve in eastern Tanzania has come as a major surprise to researchers considering that the inert gas is not easy to come across, with the only known sources of the gas being as a by-product of the fossil fuels industry.

While our first thoughts of helium lead us to think about airships and sucking it out of balloons to make our voices go really high, helium also has much more important and lifesaving properties within the medtech and scientific research sectors.

From MRI machines to the Large Hadron Collider

At its grandest scale, 120 tonnes of liquid helium is used to cool CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), but on a smaller and more crucial scale, helium is a vital to the running of MRI machines in hospitals.

Helium is also important in the development of monitoring equipment, such as radiation detectors and the production of wafer manufacturing within the tech sector so, it’s safe to say, it’s a key industrial element.

For this reason, this latest discovery could have far-reaching implications given that we have been on the cusp, or in the midst of, a worldwide helium shortage.

One-third of total US supply

The discovery of the Tanzanian helium reserve was made by researchers from the universities of Oxford and Durham working in conjunction with the Norwegian company Helium One using the latest helium exploration methods.

By analysing volcanoes in the region, the researchers were able to determine that the intense heat emitted by them is enough to release the gas from the deep, ancient rock that has now been trapped in shallower gas fields beneath the Tanzanian surface.

Enough for 1.2m MRI scanners

The trick is, the researchers said, to identify ‘Goldilocks zones’ where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution by CO2 is ‘just right’.

Going by the team’s estimates, there is an estimated reserve of 54bn cubic feet of helium gas, over a third of the current total helium reserves in the US alone.

“This is enough to fill over 1.2m medical MRI scanners,” said Prof Chris Ballentine of the University of Oxford.

“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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic