Helium hunters strike the mother lode
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.