Natural deposits of helium gas could help aid the safe production of shale or coal gas, research suggests

September 29, 2017, University of Glasgow

Natural deposits of helium gas – best known for its use in party balloons – could help aid the safe production of shale or coal gas, research suggests.

The discovery of high levels of helium in UK seams could help scientists to monitor the secure recovery of coal or from underground sites. Any gas leaks from deep underground would be accompanied by a rise in helium levels, which could be easily detected.

Their discovery could aid secure fracking – in which rocks below ground are split with high-pressure fluids – or extraction of gas from deep coal beds.

Scientists say their findings could be used alongside a chemical test to monitor whether methane at gas extraction sites has escaped from deep shale.

Together, the methods could help address public concerns over perceived contamination risks associated with the technologies.

In addition, scientists say their discovery may enable large volumes of helium gas to be recovered for sale. This valuable commodity is used in medical scanners and large-scale experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre sampled deep methane gas from an exploratory field in central Scotland and disused coal mines in central England. They found high levels of at each site.

They analysed the methane samples to identify tiny traces of inactive natural gases and different forms of carbon and hydrogen. These vary depending on the depth and origin of , enabling scientists to fingerprint and distinguish each source of methane.

If, following industrial exploration, methane or helium levels in groundwater at extraction sites are found to have changed, analysis could determine whether the gas is natural or a leak from deep shale.

Their research, published in Chemical Geology, was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government, the University of Edinburgh and SUERC.

Professor Fin Stuart, from Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride, said: "The presence of such high amounts of helium in the natural gases intrigues us. It implies that the natural gas itself is ancient, and leads to the conclusion that the Scottish coals may not have lost much of the natural gas produced since it was deposited in Carboniferous times.

"Exploiting this high helium content to trace the leakage of deep gases into shallow groundwaters will lead us on a new journey to perfect ways of measuring small amounts of helium in natural water in real-time."

Dr Stuart Gilfillan, of the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences, who led the project, said: "Measuring the high helium levels in these deep sourced UK coal gases will enable shale gas exploration and extraction to be carried out responsibly, and help to address public concerns over this activity.

"Providing that helium levels in groundwaters are found to be low prior to exploration taking place, any presence of deep gas following shale gas activities will increase levels and allow robust detection of any contamination."

Explore further: Test aims to identify shale gas hazard in groundwater

More information: Domokos Györe et al. Fingerprinting coal-derived gases from the UK, Chemical Geology (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2017.09.016

Related Stories

Test for carbon capture leaks developed

December 14, 2011

Scientists have developed the first ever fail-safe test to check for carbon dioxide (CO2) leaks from carbon capture and storage sites deep underground.

Recommended for you

A switch in ocean circulation that helped end the Ice Age

April 24, 2018

Changes in the circulation of the North Pacific Ocean about 15,000 years ago released large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, helping warm the planet and end the last Ice Age, according to research by scientists at the University ...

Airborne dust threatens human health in Southwest

April 24, 2018

In 1935, at the height of the Dust Bowl, a team of researchers from the Kansas Board of Health set out to understand the impact of dust on human health. In areas impacted by dust storms, the researchers documented an increase ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.