Science

Global helium supplies set to balloon after discovery of huge natural reserve

A global helium shortage may be averted thanks to the discovery of a huge reserve in Tanzania
A global helium shortage may be averted thanks to the discovery of a huge reserve in Tanzania
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A global helium shortage may be averted thanks to the discovery of a huge reserve in Tanzania
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A global helium shortage may be averted thanks to the discovery of a huge reserve in Tanzania

When most people think of helium, they think of party balloons and funny voices, but the gas has far more important applications in MRI machines, welding, manufacturing semiconductors, deep-sea diving and blimps. Unfortunately, it has a tendecy to just float off irretrievably into space, and with our current reserves dwindling, the world has been on the edge of a global shortage. Now, a research team has developed a new approach to finding fields of the gas underground, and with the first use of the technique they've discovered a massive reserve in East Africa.

Earth's main supply of helium comes from deep underground, as a result of radioactive decay. As it bubbles up to the planet's crust over the course of several hundred million years, it often ends up trapped in the same reserves as natural gas, which is where our commercial supplies are tapped from. In fact, until now sources of helium have only ever been found unintentionally, while drilling for oil or natural gas.

This new reserve was discovered in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, where the heat from volcanic activity was found to release helium from the ancient rocks it's embedded in, and allow it to pool in gas fields closer to the surface. The research was conducted by scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Durham, along with the Norwegian helium exploration company, Helium One.

"We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley," says Professor Chris Ballentine of Oxford University. "By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley."

That's enough to fill more than 1.2 million MRI scanners, and more than twice the amount held in reserve by the world's largest supplier, the US Federal Helium Reserve, which has just 24.2 BCf left. The annual global consumption of helium averages 8 BCf, and supplies aren't being replenished fast enough to keep up.

"This is a game changer for the future security of society's helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away," says Ballentine.

The problem with the Tanzanian reserve is that the volcanoes that allow the helium to escape the ancient rocks could end up diluting the gas.

"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," says Durham University's Diveena Danabalan. "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'."

Danabalan presented a study last year that suggested huge reservoirs of helium were yet to be found under parts of North America, and this week will present this new research at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan.

Source: Oxford University

11 comments
SteveMc
A global Helium crisis but we still allow novelty balloons to be filled with Helium?? BAN IT - simple.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
I agree with SteveMe. The way the US, the previous largest holder of helium gas, handled its big helium reserve in Texas seemed craziness to me. It wanted to shut down the facility which stores the reserve by rapidly selling it all off, which drove market prices way down. More importantly however is that it is a really irresponsible way of managing a resource that will be harder and harder to obtain in the future. You cannot reuse, recycle, or replenish it. It goes poof and flies off in the space. There are applications for helium that have a clear benefit to society and you have those that do not. Let's try to be smarter in how we use it.
bfearn
The people who sell Helium are like those that sell fossil fuels. No sense in trying to conserve a precious resource when you can make money faster by pissing it away.
Paul Anthony
What you are experiencing here is an old law of the universe. It is the law of abundance. When we practice fear of lack and we concentrate on how we are going to run out of something we are putting our energy into the law of attraction, and guess what? That energy supports the lack and we don't find the helium stores. The Helium One company was putting their energy into finding helium and guess what? They found the helium. By telling people that they can't have a balloon filled with helium you are putting energy into the lack column. The policy of selling off the helium and making it plentiful again actually worked toward finding more helium. I know for some it is not quite logical, but forget that logic and follow this new logic, you'll see it for what it is, Fear is a powerful motivator, but so are its opposite, Faith and Love.
Kpar
I am curious that these guys are worried about CO2 "dilution" of the He. It doesn't take much to distill it. Market forces should be allowed to determine the price- children's party balloons seem wasteful, I admit, but a complete ban makes little sense.
carbon
There is no actual shortage of helium, other than the artificially depressed prices created by the US government that make it uneconomic to remove from natural gas supplies. Russia, Canada, Qatar, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and almost any place in the world where natural gas is produced, has helium. The "shortage of helium" should read "shortage of cheap supply given away by the US Government from its stockpiles." If helium prices were to go up enough to encourage more equitable trade, then many uses of helium would be eliminated, and natural gas producers would once again begin removing it from natural gas, which is where the US stockpile came from in the first place.
noteugene
Evidently the writer is not a financial analyst. The law of supply & demand dictates that prices on helium will do the opposite of what he/she claims.
habakak
I agree that it's insane that the US government wants to shut down it's facility and in doing so, wasting most of it. However, as is almost always the case, we will find new sources and in a decade we might have so much supply that we'll be handing out helium filled balloons on street corners all over the world.
abedavid
It would seem that it would not be much of an engineering problem to separate He from CO2.
Lawnmowerman
In sixty years, helium will be a waste product of nuclear fusion power plants.