THINK of the gas Helium, which has the atomic number 2 and was discovered by Sir William Ramsay in 1895, and you probably imagine balloons, tyres and squeaky comedy voices but it’s actually a very important gas which can’t be artificially created and contained.
It’s most important use is to cool magnets in MRI scanners and the Large Hadron Collider in Cern Switzerland as well as nuclear research facilities.
The price of Helium has been rising as reserves were becoming depleted. Scientists were campaigning to stop its use in children’s balloons as they considered it to be a waste of a declining resource but a discovery in Tanzania has put fears of a world shortage to rest.
In the past, discovery of Helium (named after Helios the Greek for the Sun as it was first detected in the Sun’s corona) has been unintentional, found as a by-product from natural gas and oil exploration. This discovery was from deliberate and patient research by a combined British and Norwegian team.
This team studied past discoveries and knowing that the gas is normally found underground in areas of past volcanic activity allowed them to hypothesise that there should be deposits in the Rift Valley in Africa.
Having pinpointed an area in Tanzania as a potential host for trapped gasses, the group struck a deposit estimated to contain 54 billion cubic feet of gas. This find has two positive results: firstly there will be sufficient gas available for immediate future needs and secondly because their theoretical blueprint for discovery has been confirmed meaning they can discover more fields.
Whilst good news for the world and the economy of Tanzania, there is a potential problem, as the discovery in the area of Dodoma could well cause serious disruption to local inhabitants as the whole area is considered by indigenous tribesmen as being ancestral land and therefore should not be exploited.
Tanzania suffered economically for many years under the African socialist policies of quasi-dictator Julius Nyerere and is still finding it difficult to grow its economy with 34 per cent of the population considered to be living in poverty, so each new discovery of this type is important as it will generate much needed foreign currency for the country.