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HOW TO RESOLVE INDIA’S HELIUM QUANDARY

During a visit to West Germany, the redoubtable second chief minister of West Bengal, B.C. Roy, came across the hot springs of Baden Baden and was immediately impressed by the medical and curative properties of the water for relief from rheumatism and chronic diseases like arthritis. Returning to Calcutta, Roy asked the famous physicist, S.N. Bose, to look into developing similar possibilities at the hot spring at Bakreswar, near Santiniketan. Bose’s protégé, S.D. Chatterjee, then working at the Indian Association of Cultivation of Science, was entrusted with investigating the potential of the Bakreswar thermal spring. Chatterjee, who benefited from an original bent of mind, came to the conclusion after intense research that, first, the helium content of the natural gas emanating from the hot spring at Bakreswar was unusually high, at about 1.4 to 1.8 per cent, and second, the water was rich with minerals with curative properties, and third, its natural temperature was about 72 degrees Celsius.

In 1977, at the insistence of H. N. Sethna, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and A.S. Divatia of the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, the helium recovery scheme was transferred from the IACS to the VECC. The scheme started operating from March 1978, and the field-work related to the scheme, at that time run by the department of atomic energy, was also transferred to VECC in 1982. Bikash Sinha came to VECC in 1984 from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and involved himself in the project. Many discoveries were made and helium extraction started from the nearby field at Tantloi, now at Jharkhand. A purification plant was installed that could improve the helium content to 99.99 per cent. The actual volume of helium extracted was, however, nowhere near the requirement for the superconducting cyclotron, since the emanation of helium was restricted to the surface area.

In time, this activity pursued by VECC was suspended, the reason being that helium could never be extracted in sufficient quantities for engineering purposes. The importance of the research already carried out and the knowledge base that accrued were not taken into account. Nevertheless, Sinha in his later capacity with the department of atomic energy, continued with the programme, now funded by the ministry of earth sciences, and arrived at two important determinations; namely, that the entire area, Bakreswar, Tantloi and the environs, was positioned over a huge reservoir of helium at a depth of about 1-2 kilometres from the earth’s surface, and that the surface content of helium was only a tiny fraction of what was actually available in that deposit — which was what had been correctly predicted long ago by S.D. Chatterjee. Additionally, this area would be ideal for setting up a geo-thermal energy reactor, of which there is none in India yet. It will be for the ministry of alternative energy to proceed with the geo-thermal project once the customary inertia of the government has been overcome.

The Defence Research and Development Organization has now approached Sinha and his team to attempt large-scale helium extraction by digging a bore-hole of several kilometres, a process which is expected to touch the ‘oceanic’ reservoir of helium. This exercise is turning out to be extraordinarily critical for India.

Our nuclear reactors, the space department (especially for rocket launching) and the defence industry, all need helium on a large scale. Helium being one of the most non- interactive inert gases, the dome of the reactors and the burnt-out fuel tank of spacecraft need helium to fill in the empty space. Apart from these requirements, magnetic resonance imaging and TV screens also need helium. When helium gas is cooled to approximately — 270°C, it becomes liquid.

Some material such as niobium-titanium turns superconductive, which means that electric current at this temperature faces no electrical resistance. Superconducting technology is the frontier technology of tomorrow, and in the Cyclotron Centre there is a superconducting cyclotron, which needs 400 litres of liquid helium at a time. The Large Hadron Collider at Cern, incidentally, needs thousands of litres of liquid helium.

There is a crisis looming for India because the United States of America is slowly but surely going to turn off the helium supply to India. The US needs to cut its export not for the lack of a friendship with India, but because the US needs the helium to satisfy its domestic demand, which is increasing very rapidly. There is no known substitute for helium to date that is economically viable. Any suspension of exports from the US will not violate any bilateral inter-governmental agreement, though it would be appropriate for New Delhi to try to negotiate one even at this belated stage. Helium consumption in India is approximately 0.15 billion cubic feet, about 2.3 per cent of global helium consumption, all of which is imported by India from the US, there being no other significant exporter. Poland and Qatar are among the countries that produce helium, but have very limited export surpluses.

We have, for too long, taken the Micawberish attitude that something will turn up to save the situation. India will now have to initiate its own programme to produce helium on a large scale. There are many other sources of helium arising from thermal springs in India, and not just in Bengal, but curiously no comprehensive effort to map and extract helium has been initiated, and our reliance on the US is total. In the late 1970s, a similar dependence on the US for uranium proved nearly disastrous. It appears that lessons from that precedent have still to be digested. Once bitten should not become twice shy.