Enormous helium discovery deflates fears of shortages

A new method of finding helium may mark the end of a decades-long shortage of the gas. 

(AP Photo/Mark McBreairty)
A balloon cluster carrying Jonathan Trappe lifts off from Caribou, Maine, in September 2013. In Tanzania, a huge deposit of rare helium was discovered using new methods.

Scientists had never known where to look for the Earth’s helium supply, until now.

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Norway tested out a new approach to gas exploration and struck exactly what they were looking for: a huge helium gas field.

The discovery of the helium cache could ease the current shortage of the valuable, rare gas – both because of the astounding amount of helium found and the potential for these discovery methods to be applied elsewhere around the world.

This is good news for more than just the balloon industry: Helium is used in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners, industrial leak detection, welding, and nuclear energy production. Previously, the element had never been unearthed intentionally; it had been found only as a byproduct of gas drilling.

A research group from Oxford and Durham universities teamed up with the helium exploration company Helium One and found the helium gas field in Tanzania's East African Rift Valley on their first attempt at testing out their new method.

Experts who analyzed the field predict it contains 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) in just one part of the valley – more than six times the global consumption of helium, which is about eight BCf per year. Helium found in that section of the valley could fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.

“This is an outstanding example of industry and academia working together closely to deliver real value to society. The impact of this and expected future helium discoveries will secure supply for the medical scanning and other industries,” said Prof. Jon Gluyas, department of earth sciences of Durham University.

Helium is formed by the decay of radioactive rocks in the Earth’s crust. The key ingredient to make the vital gas accessible to humans? Volcanic activity.

Volcanoes in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley provided the extreme heat necessary to free the gas from the ancient crustal rocks, allowing the gas to be trapped in shallower gas fields.

Researchers had to know the precise distance from the volcano to conduct their search.

“If gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, just as we see in thermal springs from the region. We are now working to identify the ‘goldilocks-zone’ between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is 'just right,'” explained Diveena Danabalan, a PhD student at Durham University’s department of earth sciences who will present the research at an upcoming conference in Japan.

The researchers say their strategy can be used to find helium in other parts of the world with a similar geological history, potentially marking the end of the decades-long shortage.

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