We’ve all heard the concerns over non-renewable resources such as oil, but science has raised some interesting questions about some rather more unusual resource issues recently. I discuss these and other science news stories on bFM’s Dear Science show today.
Helium: the new fossil fuel?
What is helium and what is it used for?
Helium (He) is an element named after the Greek Sun god, Helios. It is the second lightest element in the periodic table, an inert gas with the lowest melting and boiling point of any element, and hence highly desirable as a coolant. It is used to super-cool magnets in MRI machines and the Large Hadron Collider, and even as a rocket fuel coolant. Helium also has many more down-to-earth uses such as in the small lasers that supermarkets use to scan goods at the checkout, also for fun in filling lighter-than air helium balloons and in SCUBA diving where helium-oxygen mixtures allow deep diving without the risk of nitrogen narcosis.
Why the concern?
Helium is second most abundant chemical in the universe after hydrogen, forming about 24% of elemental mass of the universe. Most was formed during the Big Bang but significant new amounts are also being formed by nuclear fusion in stars. On Earth naturally occurring helium is effectively a non-renewable resource, the only source is from radioactive decay of rocks and therefore like other non-renewable resources demand and supply are an issue. So much so that the price of helium has gone up 500% in the last 15 years and it is widely agreed that with current use we will face chronic shortages very soon.
So why is this making science news headlines now?
A team led by Oxford and Durham universities have used a new approach to predict where helium might occur, and in doing so have identified a massive new supply deep beneath the Rift Valley in Tanzania. They estimate around around 54 billion cubic feet of helium gas lies beneath the surface, enough to meet world demand for several years – it is enough to cool about one million MRI scanners and represents a 25% increase in global stock!
How did they do this?
They combined their knowledge of helium geochemistry (where it is formed in rocks) with seismic analysis of rock and fault structures to identify where the gas would be trapped. It turns out the Rift Valley is the ‘goldilocks’ zone for helium trapping, due to the level of volcanic activity that provides just the right amount of heat to release helium from deep crustal rocks. The level of volcanic activity is critical because if too high it pollutes helium pockets with volcanic gases, if too low the helium remains trapped in rock. The Rift Valley helium is trapped in near-surface pockets and so experts are optimistic it can be exploited – so there is probably no need to worry too much about buying helium balloons for the next office party!
Peeing in the shower could benefit conservation of water resources
This is all about whether or not you should pee in the shower, so where does science fit in?
‘Shower pee’ has actually become a big discussion point in many countries recently, because clean water is the most important limiting resource on Earth. If you pee in the toilet you need to flush it, and that means also flushing 4-6 litres of water each time as well. The average adult pees 7 times a day, so we all use on average 35 litres of water a day to flush away our pee. So if we (correctly) assume we all do this every day, kiwis flush approximately 140 million litres of water per day just from peeing (this is equivalent to filling about 56 Olympic swimming pools).
Scientists argue that by peeing in shower you could save a huge amount of this water.
Now let us assume each person showers once a day, and also uses that opportunity to pee – the resulting saving of 20 million litres of water per day in New Zealand could be critical: Take for example our biggest city, Auckland. It is estimated that given growth targets set for the city Auckland is facing a water crisis within 15 years. Auckland gets it’s water from the Waikato river, and that growth means the current use of 100 million litres a day will grow to more than 300 million litres per day – and this could be a serious environmental cost to urban growth.
Is it safe to pee in the shower?
What does that shower pee mean for the urine and our safety? Well urine is effectively sterile when it leaves the body but it is rich in nitrogen, and this is like food from heaven for microbes. So you don’t really want the pee hanging around in the shower – it’s best if you avoid peeing in a dry shower or forget to rinse it away. The health risks are probably minimal when you think about it, we also wash far more ‘dirty’ parts of our body when we shower! Fortunately bacteria are generally quite picky about where they live on the human body, so that’s why even things like athlete’s foot and other ‘public’ diseases are not truly pandemic. Indeed that shower pee (with a rinse) could actually be beneficial, as science shows using toilet paper instead of washing after toilet can introduce bacteria to the urino-genital area.
BREXIT from a science perspective
Aside from cheaper OE and possibly a few more whining Brits over here, what is the risk that our kiwi science funding resources will be affected by BREXIT?
The first thing to say is that nobody really yet knows AND the UK has not actually formally applied to leave the EU yet by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The reality is that a lot of media reports on both sides of this issue are very heavy on rhetoric but rather weak on facts. I personally think a true BREXIT could be some way off yet, and to me comes as no surprise. My Cantonese family from another former British colony (Hong Kong) have a very apt way to describe the British way of doing things as ‘Yuen Day Daap Bo’ which translates to people ‘marching while standing still’.
For science and indeed all STEM subjects, a significant amount of kiwi research is done in collaboration with UK researchers, and often this involves research funding by the European Union. These amounts dwarf what we have available domestically for science in Aotearoa New Zealand, for example the European Research Council awarded over GBP 1bn to UK research in 2014. This is actually more than the UK contributed to EU research, generally because UK research is of very high quality and so in contestable funding they fare well. The EU also gains though in terms of enhanced return on investment by funding such high quality research.
I see two major concerns for UK science: A potential loss of access to EU funding and a longer-term reduction in societal impact from this reduced investment. BUT before we join the scaremongers over this, I want to point out there is already established precedent that some non-EU members get access to EU research funding. For example in January 2014 Norway and Iceland were admitted to the new EURO 80bn EU research and innovation programme called HorizonSo despite Angela Merkel playing hard-ball in this week’s press about wanting to quickly cut ties, it is not really likely or desirable that the UK or the EU cut ties scientifically.
So what does it mean for kiwi science?
Kiwi science may in some cases seek to re-align its collaboration where the money is – this may be with the EU in the short term, but I think having decided to go it alone the UK now probably needs to have more confidence in its science ability and reputation, and bolster domestic science funding should any negative impact arise due to BREXIT. This might actually end up being a gain for kiwi researchers as it could give us an extra ‘bite of the apple’ in terms of access to collaborative research funds from both UK and EU sources. We may even see a ‘brain drain’ of UK academics, and that means more choice when considering new hires in the Aotearoa New Zealand science sector.
Featured image: CC YouTube