Industrial News

Helium Found — Gas Chromatography Doesn’t Have to Rely on Hot Air

Jul 11 2016 Read 2167 Times

From injecting a sample at one end to a data station producing a set of results at the other end — gas chromatography is relatively simple. The magic happens in the column, as the physics of adsorption and desorption govern how a sample interacts with the stationary and liquid phases of the column lining.

Of course, as samples get more complex and detection limits reduce — injection systems, columns and detectors get more complex and sensitive. But one part of the system remains essentially unchanged — the gases.

Not just for squeaky voices

Gases have two main uses in a GC system — carrier gas or detector support gas. The major gas used by volume is the carrier gas, the gas that transports the sample through the column. The carrier gas has to be inert so that it doesn’t react with the sample components.

The carrier gas used by the majority of GC users has traditionally been helium. This is partly due to its inertness and physical properties — it can be used at a reasonably wide range of linear velocity — and helium is a good carrier gas to use when mass spectrometry is used in tandem with GC.

Stories about a shortage of helium over recent years have meant that GC users — along with balloon salesmen — have been worried. But a recent find of a large ‘helium field’ in Tanzania might just have eased the tension building up in the industry.

Helium from the cradle-of-life

Helium demand is around 30,000 tonnes per year, and before this find the known reserves would have only lasted another 15 years or so. Once used, helium cannot be recycled — it escapes into the air and floats off into space. The reduction in reserves were driving the price up — something that was forcing GC users to look at alternatives as discussed in this article, How using Hydrogen Carrier Gas can Alleviate your Helium Supply Woe.

Now researchers from Oxford and Durham universities and a helium exploration company have found a significant helium field in the Rift Valley — an area known as containing some of the earliest examples of hominid fossils. Previously, our helium resources were by-products of oil and gas exploration. But the researchers have shown that helium is released by volcanic activity from helium-bearing rocks with the released helium trapped by overlying rocks.

Using their geochemical knowledge and seismic studies the researchers estimate that the field has a reserve of 54 Billion cubic feet (Bcf) — in comparison we use approximately 8 Bcf per year and the world’s largest supplier (US Federal Helium Reserve) has reserves of 24 Bcf. The find has given some security for the future of the world’s helium supply. In a press release one of the team stated that:

We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources.

So, GC users and birthday balloon sellers can relax.

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