Visiting Master’s Students on the Hunt for Helium

Visiting Master’s Students on the Hunt for Helium

Over the past two weeks the department has welcomed two visiting Master’s students from University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Clarah Kimani and Karim Mtili have been learning about mass spectrometry in the Noble Lab, headed by Professor Chris Ballentine.

The opportunity arose from an academic partnership with Helium One, a helium exploration start-up company operating in Tanzania. Rifting and associated volcanism in the country make it the perfect target for prime helium exploration. Research Fellow Dr Pete Barry had already led several expeditions in Tanzania with Helium One to collect surface gas seeps from the rift, discovering gases that contained up to 10% by volume helium. The company funds two scholarships at the University of Dar es Salaam, which includes the opportunity to work with the team at Oxford University over the summer, to learn more about the sampling and analysis of noble gases, and training on the miniRUEDI, a portable mass spectrometer. This is the same type of equipment that they will be deploying in the field in Tanzania.

Students and staff huddled round the portable mass spectrometer.

Dr Darren Hillegonds oversees visiting Masters students Clarah (L) and Karim (R) as they experiment with the portable mass spectrometer.

“The people have been so welcoming and friendly, it has been really nice.” Clarah describes. “Our time in the lab has given us access to experts, which has allowed us to learn more about helium and other noble gases; practical knowledge which we can take back to Tanzania.”

“For me, the one-on-one training has been really special,” explains Karim. “I feel very fortunate to have been taught in this way, spending time in the lab with Dr Darren Hillegonds, learning how the instruments actually work. The learning environment is very special, people are very calm and focussed here.”

Chris Ballentine commented, “It is a pleasure to host such outstanding students in Oxford. Their intellectual curiosity about everything helium is infectious. We are looking forward very much to working with Clarah, Karim and their Tanzanian supervisors Drs Charles Kasanzu and Emmanuel Kazimoto over the next two years and, I hope, beyond.”

It’s not all been work. The students have had the opportunity to visit the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums, the Botanical Gardens, the Bodleian Library, Christ Church College, and even some of the more famous pubs such as the Turf Tavern for that true Oxford experience.

When the students return to Dar es Salaam, they will be going into the field with Helium One and Pete Barry, to apply their new-found skills with a miniRUEDI. They will also be presenting their updated knowledge to their peers and faculty at the Department of Geology at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Find out more about the research undertaken in the Noble Lab, and read an article about the group’s wider work in this area in our 2017 Earth Sciences News (pages 4 & 5).

Find out more about Helium One.

Main image: L-R: Clarah, Darren, Josh Bluett (Technical Director, Helium One), Karim, Pete, with Chris seated, front.