Helium hunters strike the mother lode

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

The MRI in­dus­try is pos­i­tively buoy­ant over the news. The helium short­age is no more—thanks to a de­vice us­ing some duct tape, plas­tic pip­ing, a fold­ing ta­ble and some other de­cid­edly low-tech com­po­nents.

The dis­cov­ery of a huge helium gas field in East Africa is a “game-changer for the fu­ture se­cu­rity of so­ci­ety’s helium needs” amid a global short­age, re­searchers in Bri­tain said re­cently.

The dis­cov­ery in Tan­za­nia is the re­sult of a new ex­plo­ration ap­proach for the pre­cious gas that is es­sen­tial to space­craft, MRI scan­ners and nu­clear en­ergy, ac­cord­ing to the Ox­ford Univer­sity state­ment. Of course, helium also fills party bal­loons and has been known to give you a squeaky, high voice when in­haled.

This is the first time helium has been found in­ten­tion­ally, said the state­ment. Un­til now, the gas has been found in small amounts ac­ci­den­tally dur­ing oil and gas drilling.

Ox­ford tweeted a photo of some of the low-tech com­po­nents used in the ex­plo­ration, in­clud­ing a roll of duct tape and plas­tic pip­ing propped on a stick in what looks like a shal­low pond.

“It may not look like much, but it helped find enough helium for 1.2 mil­lion med­i­cal MRI scan­ners,” the tweet said.

Mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing re­lies on reg­u­larly re­plen­ished helium to keep the MR mag­nets ex­tremely cold—more than 440 de­grees below zero Fahren­heit.

In­de­pen­dent ex­perts have es­ti­mated the helium dis­cov­ery is about 54 bil­lion cu­bic feet, Ox­ford pro­fes­sor Chris Bal­len­tine said.

“To put this dis­cov­ery into per­spec­tive, global con­sump­tion of helium is about 8 BCf per year,” he said in the state­ment. “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.”

Re­searchers found that the in­tense vol­canic heat in Tan­za­nia’s East African Rift Val­ley has re­leased helium from an­cient rocks and trapped it in shal­low gas fields, the state­ment said. The re­searchers worked with Nor­way-based ex­plo­ration com­pany Helium One.

The his­toric helium dis­cov­ery was made us­ing some de­cid­edly low-tech gear.

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