NAIROBI: A newly discovered helium gas field in Tanzania was hailed Tuesday as a “game changer” by scientists and the company hoping to exploit it.
Helium is a rare gas used in medical scanners, scientific research, spaceships, weather balloons and telescopes—as well as party balloons and for squeaky-voiced comic effect—and it is thought world consumption is far outstripping production, raising concerns of a global shortage.
The discovery of as much as 54 billion cubic feet of the gas in southern Tanzania could satisfy total world demand for almost seven years at current rates.
“We sampled helium gas, and nitrogen, just bubbling out of the ground,” said Chris Ballentine, a professor at the University of Oxford who was involved in testing the gasses, adding the find was “enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.”
“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,” Ballentine said.
It is thought that volcanic activity in Tanzania’s section of the Rift Valley created the high temperatures necessary to release the gas from ancient rocks allowing it to rise up and become trapped closer to the surface making it ripe for exploitation.
Norwegian mining company Helium One, which worked with the scientists on a new exploration technique credited with the find and has three prospecting licenses in Tanzania, claimed to have discovered, “a globally significant helium-bearing province.”
Helium’s utility in scientific research stems from its nature as a stable, inert gas that becomes liquid at minus 269 degrees Centigrade (452 degrees Fahrenheit), the lowest temperature of all the elements. It is usually only discovered in small quantities as a by-product of gas and oil drilling.