Huge helium discovery 'a life-saving find'

June 27, 2016, University of Oxford
Image of a helium filled discharge tube shaped like the element's atomic symbol. Image: Pslawinski/ Wikipedia.

A new approach to gas exploration has discovered a huge helium gas field, which could address the increasingly critical shortage of this vital yet rare element.

Helium doesn't just make your voice squeaky - it is critical to many things we take for granted, including MRI scanners in medicine, welding, industrial leak detection and nuclear energy. However, known reserves are quickly running out. Until now helium has never been found intentionally - being accidentally discovered in small quantities during oil and drilling.

Now, a research group from Oxford and Durham universities, working with Helium One, a helium exploration company headquartered in Norway, has developed a brand new exploration approach. The first use of this method has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania.

Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks. Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and have trapped this helium in shallower gas fields. The research is being presented by Durham University PhD student Diveena Danabalan at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan.

Diveena Danabalan, of Durham University's Department of Earth Sciences, said: "We show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves. Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks. However, 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'."

Professor Chris Ballentine, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said: "We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley. 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. This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world's largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. 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."

Professor Jon Gluyas, Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, said: "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."

Dr Pete Barry, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, who sampled the gases, added: "We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources. Excitingly, we have linked the importance of volcanic activity for helium release with the presence of potential trapping structures and this study represents another step towards creating a viable model for helium exploration. This is badly needed given the current demand for ."

Explore further: The unbearable lightness of helium may not be such a problem after all

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26 comments

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Laniakea
5 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2016
Doesn't really say much though, it seems like it has the opportunity to only hold the shortage back by a decade or so.
Laniakea
5 / 5 (4) Jun 27, 2016
Well, pushes it around 2030 to 2040 depending on fluctuations
serge747
4.7 / 5 (13) Jun 27, 2016
Meanwhile, let's continue wasting it for balloons at birthday parties.
Shootist
2.1 / 5 (14) Jun 28, 2016
Doesn't really say much though, it seems like it has the opportunity to only hold the shortage back by a decade or so.


Stop panicking, the planet is a whole lot bigger than you appear to think. He constantly replenishes. radioactive decay produces both He3 (from decay of H3) and He4 (from U decay to thorium) in useful quanities.
rrrander
4.3 / 5 (7) Jun 28, 2016
Stop using it for party balloons, and multi-million cubic yards for weather, etc., and replace it with hydrogen. Hydrogen wasn't that dangerous, despite what happened to the Hindenburg. Worst case, some balloons get too close to the cake candles and go boom at some kid's birthday.
antialias_physorg
3.8 / 5 (12) Jun 28, 2016
The gas used in balloons doesn't have the purity needed for e.g. medical applications. So it's not that 'using party balloons costs lives'.

Well, pushes it around 2030 to 2040 depending on fluctuations

This is just the first field they have found using this method. It's not too wild a speculation that this method can be used to find fields elsewhere.

That said we should still conserve this stuff as best as possible. Even with this new discovery it remains a finite/non-recoverable resource.
Eikka
4.2 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2016
The gas used in balloons doesn't have the purity needed for e.g. medical applications. So it's not that 'using party balloons costs lives'.


That's not a very good excuse, because the gas could easily be purified and recycled back to use.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (11) Jun 28, 2016
Even at today's high prices it's not done (because it isn't 'easy') . The gas you get in party balloons is what you get at the END of the recycling of helium (i.e. when it's so unpure that it isn't good for anything else anymore)
If it were easy we could just take it out of the air (there's 5.2ppm helium in the atmosphere)
Even if you were to forbid all party balloons right now that wouldn't make one extra medical scanner in the world run.
Phil DePayne
5 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2016
The value of my helium stockpile is now worthless!

Back to gold
antigoracle
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2016
Certainly cause for celebration. Now, where are those balloons.
HeloMenelo
3 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2016
balloons at a gorilla monkey's celebration, how fitting, pitty for you only you and your sock's will be attending ;)
antigoracle
1.4 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2016
LOL.
Talking to yourself again, AGreatWanker.
Zorcon
4.6 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2016
Even at today's high prices it's not done (because it isn't 'easy') . The gas you get in party balloons is what you get at the END of the recycling of helium (i.e. when it's so unpure that it isn't good for anything else anymore)

Even if you were to forbid all party balloons right now that wouldn't make one extra medical scanner in the world run.

Sorry, I'm calling BS. Most critical uses of He use it in liquid form as a coolant. Nothing else has a low enough boiling point to support superconductivity in a high magnetic field (required for MRI scanners, particle accelerators, etc.). All that matters for that is its boiling point and no "impurity" can change that because at its boiling point (of 4.55k at sea level) everything else is frozen out.

It is very easy to distill to great purity because everything else is frozen at its boiling point.
Zorcon
4.6 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2016
If it were easy we could just take it out of the air (there's 5.2ppm helium in the atmosphere).


We can but its very expensive because that requires liquefying and boiling the other 999,994.8ppm. Distilling it from "impure" helium is approximately 200,000 times more efficient.
Zorcon
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 28, 2016
The gas used in balloons doesn't have the purity needed for e.g. medical applications. So it's not that 'using party balloons costs lives'.


That's not a very good excuse, because the gas could easily be purified and recycled back to use.

Not to mention, it is *impossible* for it to be impure in that use (as a cryogenic coolant) because everything else will freeze and settle out. The liquid and vapor can contain ONLY He-4 and He-3.
Zorcon
4.6 / 5 (9) Jun 28, 2016
Good article on the subject -
We're as likely to run out of helium as we all are to starve to death because we've eaten the bacon in the refrigerator, meaning that we cannot ever have breakfast again
http://www.forbes...26f1cf01

Wake up, Bozo. There are substitutes for bacon and there are substitute lifting gases. But there is no substitute for liquid helium as a cryogenic coolant; squander it and the next-most economical source will be mining it from Saturn's atmosphere. That will increase your medical bills.
rgw
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 28, 2016
Peak helium is nearly upon us!
barakn
4 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2016
Good article on the subject -
We're as likely to run out of helium as we all are to starve to death because we've eaten the bacon in the refrigerator, meaning that we cannot ever have breakfast again
http://www.forbes...26f1cf01

Except the bacon is released from decay chains whose first steps have half-lives on the order of a billion years or more. It will take millions of years for sufficient quantities of bacon to build back up the fridge again.
rgw
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2016
The liquid and vapor can contain ONLY He-4 and He-3.


'He' this and 'He' that . Very sexist
EnricM
5 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2016
Worst case, some balloons get too close to the cake candles and go boom at some kid's birthday.


Which would also provide a continuous source of enjoyment in Youtube!!
Yeah, H2 FTW!
HeloMenelo
3.7 / 5 (6) Jun 29, 2016
LOL.
Talking to yourself again, AGreatWanker.


Nope i'm talking to You, as always showing everyone how dumb you are ;)
winthrom
5 / 5 (5) Jul 01, 2016
@rrrander. The US stopped using He for weather balloons in the 1960s. I worked as a radiosonde weather observer in the USAF when the switch took place from He to H2. At the same time, large oil companies were released from the federal law requiring capture and saving He from US oil wells. That release is why we have so little now. Penny wise (for the oil companies) and dollar stupid (for the USA).
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jul 01, 2016
It is very easy to distill to great purity because everything else is frozen at its boiling point.


The whole claim was ridiculous in the first place because the helium needs to be fairly high purity to lift a party balloon in the first place - much more so than in the source from oil and gas fields. If recycling of helium from "party balloon grade" was not possible or profitable, extraction from natural gas would not be either.

AA's claim doesn't stand up to the straight face test.

The only plausible argument is that He3 and He4 act differently at cryogenic temperatures, because one is a boson and another is a fermion. However, there's about 1/1 000 000 part of He3 to He4 in the naturally occurring helium on earth, so there couldn't possibly be enough "leftovers" for party balloons.
Bongstar420
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 02, 2016
This is good to hear
Whydening Gyre
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 02, 2016
The only plausible argument is that He3 and He4 act differently at cryogenic temperatures, because one is a boson and another is a fermion.

Hunh?!?
SURFIN85
5 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2016
Lets see, 8 BILLION cubic feet per year of demand, 54 BILLION cubic feet in the discovery... 6.75 years of use until its all gone.

The numbers boggle; on one end, their enormity, on the other, their seeming insignificance.

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