Overzealous Tanzanian authorities have ordered Helium One Company of Norway to start the drilling of Helium gas recently discovered in the Lake Rukwa area, Southern Tanzania. The discovered Helium is estimated to be 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) and also estimated to be worth $3.5 billion.
Tanzania’s minister of energy and minerals, Prof. Sospeter Muhongo in a published statement in June revealed that scientists from Tanzania Geological Survey and Helium One in collaboration with scientists from Oxford and Durham universities discovered a huge Helium gas deposit in Lake Rukwa area.
In a new directive calling for action, the minister said: “I have spoken with Mr. Thomas Abraham-James, the chief executive officer of Helium One and I have urged him to start immediately.” The minister had earlier described the discovery as ‘a very commendable development” and that Tanzania ‘will surely make it as a nation’ using Helium.
Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli responding to the news of Helium discovery in his country called for extra care in signing contracts with investors so that Tanzanians benefit from the resources.
“I thank God for the discovery of Helium in Tanzania. My call to our experts is that let us prepare ourselves well, especially in the area of the development agreements so that such rare resources help in building our country.” President Magufuli said in a tweet.
What you need to know about Helium
Helium is a chemical element and a colorless, odorless, tasteless, inert gas. It has the smallest atomic radius of any element and the second lowest atomic weight. It is lighter than air. The number one use of helium is as a cooling gas for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines used in medical facilities like scanners.
Other important uses of helium include: a protective gas for welding, an inert gas for controlled atmosphere manufacturing, a fugitive gas used for leak detection, and a low viscosity gas for pressurized breathing mixtures. Most people know that helium is used as a lifting gas in blimps and party balloons, but they can't name another way in which it is used.
The Helium people use on Earth mainly comes from mining underground gas pockets of helium. The helium gets underground when radioactive atoms like uranium (that are underground) decay and shoot off alpha particles, which are the same as helium atoms without their electrons. Still underground, the alpha particles findelectrons and join up with them to become helium atoms.
Helium is a scarce resource
Researchers described the discovery of Helium in Tanzania as ‘a game changer for the future security of society's helium needs". There has been a worry amidst shortages of the precious gas that is essential to spacecraft, MRI scanners and nuclear energy among other usages.
Jon Gluyas, professor of geo-energy at Durham University and a member of the discovery team said the reserves of Helium have been depleting quite quickly adding that the discovery in Tanzania ‘is a significant find’ but ‘we have to keep finding more’ because ‘it’s not renewable or replaceable’. He said the price of Helium has gone up 500% in last 15 years.
The steady decline in global Helium reserves concerned some doctors so much that they had called for a ban on its use in party balloons, the Guardian of the UK reported.
The newspaper reported that at a British Medical Association meeting last year anaesthetist Tom Dolphin told delegates: “This invaluable, irreplaceable gas is being literally handed to children in balloons so they can be entertained for a few minutes until they get bored and let go.”
One Nobel laureate, the late Robert Richardson, said in 2012 that helium balloons should cost £75 each to reflect the true cost of the gas. Tokyo Disneyland was once forced to suspend sales of its helium balloons, according to CNN.
Professor Chris Ballentine from the University of Oxford has warned that Helium is set to run out in 15 to 20 years, given current reserves. "Which, given the lead in time for building and finding new supplies, is just a little bit too short," Professor Ballentine said.
Professor Ballentine was part of the team of UK scientists who worked with a Norwegian helium exploration company to make a new discovery in East Africa. Until now, the precious gas has been discovered only in small quantities during oil and gas drilling.