So a massive helium reserve may have been found in Tanzania's Rift Valley. Wonderful. All the western headlines this morning have put a typically western spin on it. Hurrah! We are saved! We get to go plunder a foreign place again for what we need to save our own lives! Before we get too carried away with ourselves, let's take a few seconds to think about a few things. Like, say, how many MRI scanners are there in Tanzania right now? How many Tanzanian lives will be saved? Anyone care to estimate? This scanner in Dar es Salaam makes headlines when it breaks down.
What about the wildlife in Tanzania? Will lives be saved there, too? Note the concentration of national parks and game reserves in and around the Rukwa region of Tanzania. Now, I'm not intimately familiar with how helium gas is extracted, concentrated or liquefied but I'm going to guess that some of it has to be done where the gas is found. Even if the gas doesn't just float conveniently into collection chambers instead of needing some sort of gas forcing process (We love fracking, right?) and miles and miles of pipelines, it's a fair assumption that there will be massive energy needs to liquefy it. Then the cryogenic liquid helium must be transported. So we'll need roads, maybe an airport for the suits to get in and out quickly, and perhaps a railway to move the product to a sea port. Or we could just push the gas down a long pipe to the coast where it could be liquefied, then transported abroad. This is all going to be great news for African nature, I'm sure of it!
I would prefer that we take our cue from the researchers quoted in the BBC article.
Prof Chris Ballentine, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, said: "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."And colleague Dr Pete Barry added: "We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources."
Good, because taking the usual westerners' "easy out" and exploiting the far away place where nimbys don't exist (and can be ignored even if they do) is the coward's solution. Let's go find helium in the Cascades or Hawaii or somewhere closer to those who actually get to benefit from MRI, then see how we react to the extraction options.
In the mean time, here's what Rukwa, Tanzania looks like today. This is the Katavi National Park, right in the middle of the Rukwa region.
Here's what the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas looks like.
Practically twins! And finally, here's what the Rukwa mine project looks like. This is the coal mine where the coal for producing electricity in the local power plant comes from. Because we'll be needing electricity. Lots of it. Global warming shmobal warming.
Hurrah! We are saved! MRI for westerners forever!
Update on 30 June, 2016:
I found the location of the helium reserve on the Helium One website. I estimated the location of the Rukwa Project, as it's called, on a Google map below. Many media outlets reported the helium find as being a "game changer." Freudian slip? Perhaps a game reserve changer at a minimum.
And for the record, as I hope I made clear in response to the comments from sfz, I'm not yet either for or against developing this gas field. I am against incomplete journalism, however. There are many issues that need to be addressed and questions asked from the developed countries who stand to benefit the most from this discovery.
Update on 1st July, 2016:
Looks like a new airport won't be needed. A new airport in nearby Mbeya opened in 2012 with an 11,000 ft runway. Now if we can only learn about the ways drilling might proceed with minimal impact on the game reserve. There's more science in a brief article online by Jon Gluyas, a member of of the team that developed the search methods and found the Rukwa reserve.