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An Element(ary) Discovery

Scientists from India, Australia and the US have made a joint discovery that could be very useful in the search for helium; a colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, and monatomic gas. In a rare first, scientists have found the chemical element on land surface (or above the sea level), as they have traced a huge amount of helium in the eastern Indian Province of Jharkhand.

As all the planets in our Solar System were formed from debris coming from the Sun, it is quite natural that some of the solar materials can be found in those planets, including the Earth. Although the Sun has a huge reserve of helium, the gas is rare in the Earth. However, scientists have opined that helium has been trapped beneath the ground since the creation of the Earth. Dr Priyadarshi Chowdhury, the Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at National Institute of Science Education and Research (India), and his colleagues have shown that a huge reserve of helium, considered as the treasure of the Sun, has been stored in the Earth.

Dr Chowdhury and his co-researchers have found several rocks, called sandstones, in Singhbhum District of Jharkhand, and those rocks are more than three billion years old. Their study has challenged the widely accepted view that the continents rose from the oceans about 2.5 billion years ago. It suggests this happened 700 million years earlier (or about 3.2 billion years ago), and that the earliest continental landmass to emerge might have been in Jharkhand’s Singhbhum region.

Dr Chowdhury of Monash University told The Indian Express daily: “When the first landmasses were formed lay in the sedimentary rocks of the region. We found a particular type of sedimentary rocks, called sandstones. We, then, tried to find their age and in which conditions they have formed. We found the age by analysing the uranium and lead contents of tiny minerals. These rocks are 3.1 billion years old, and were formed in ancient rivers, beaches, and shallow seas. All these water bodies could have only existed if there was continental land. Thus, we inferred that the Singhbhum region was above the ocean before 3.1 billion years ago.

According to Dr Chowdhury, this part was the first to rise above the water level after the Earth began to cool. He is of the opinion that a huge amount of helium is trapped in those rocks, and it can be called solar helium. As the rocks have been cracked by the tremendous pressure, helium has been pouring out of these stones on its own for millions of years.

Dr Chowdhury has explained that helium is released from uranium and thorium (stored in those stones) because of radioactivity. Although it originates from radioactive reactions, helium does not bond with any substance. Hence, the gas comes out easily. That is why the space in the rocket’s reactor is filled with helium after it burns out. Helium is also required for the protection of nuclear reactors.

Dr Chowdhury has claimed that their discovery has a special significance. For so long, the US has been exporting helium to various countries, including India. As Washington DC has announced that it would stop exporting the gas, helium has become costly nowadays. Helium is required for various purposes… for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), launching rockets, operating nuclear reactors and also in ultra-cooling technology. Currently, India imports helium worth nearly USD 6 billion from the US every year to meet its needs. New Delhi will have to spend more for helium in the coming days, with the US appearing set to cut off exports.

It may be noted that Indian mathematician and physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (January 1, 1894 – February 4, 1974) used to serve as the Vice Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University in 1956. He often visited nearby villages in Birbhum District of eastern Indian Province of West Bengal during that period of time. Once, he found a well full of boiling water, with a natural gas coming out of it, in Bakreshwar village. Later, Bose and and his favourite student Shyamadas Chatterjee revealed that 1.8% of the gas was helium (one of the largest proportion in the world).

A couple of years later, Chatterjee informed the Government of India that Bakreshwar and nearby Tantlui region (in Jharkhand Province) had a huge reserve of helium, having the primordial qualities of the Sun. Now, Dr Chowdhury and his co-researchers have claimed that this piece of land (in India) first floated to the surface when the Earth cooled down a bit.

Although Dr Chowdhury has admitted that patches of the earliest continental land also exist in Australia and South Africa, he stressed: “We studied the granites that form the continental crust of the Singhbhum region. These granites are 3.5 to 3.1 billion years old and formed through extensive volcanism that happened about 35-45km deep inside the Earth and continued on-and-off for hundreds of millions of years until all the magma solidified to form a thick continental crust in the area. Due to the thickness and less density, the continental crust emerged above surrounding oceanic crust owing to buoyancy.” He added: “This is the most direct, unambiguous date yet for the emergence of continental land.

Dr Chowdhury stated: “We have plate tectonics today to control the elevation. When two continents’ (plates) collide, you form the Himalayas, you form the Alps. That wasn’t the case three billion years ago. The first continents probably rose above sea level as they were inflated by progressive injection of magma derived from deep in the Earth.

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