Scientists discover ‘game-changer’ Helium deposits in Tanzania

The newly discovered cache of Helium in Tanzania (Oxford University / Twitter)
Scientists have found a huge helium gas deposit in Tanzania, and the discovery could help alleviate worries about a global helium shortage in recent years.

Helium — a colourless, odourless gas — is used to keep balloons afloat, but is also crucial for medical and scientific research. It is the only element capable of reliably cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI machines, and is used as a shielding gas in steel welding.

A team of researchers from Oxford and Durham universities, and helium exploration company Helium One, located a large gas field by using new exploration methods. Helium is usually discovered accidentally while drilling for oil and natural gas, but the new intentional discovery in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley is the first of its kind. Durham University PhD candidate Diveena Danabalan presented the group’s discovery at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan.

“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 in just one part of the rift valley,” co-author Chris Ballentine said in a press release.

The helium was discovered by borrowing the techniques used in natural gas exploration to understand how helium accumulates underground. The researchers found that volcanic activity produces enough heat to drive the gas out of ancient rocks, and up into shallow gas fields.

Ballentine explained that global helium consumption is about 8 billion cubic feet per year, and that the world’s largest supplier, the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve, has a current reserve of just 24 billion cubic feet.

“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,” he added.

The U.S. government started stockpiling helium during the 1920s, and by 1990 had accumulated roughly 35 billion cubic feet. But in 1996, congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, and started selling off strategic reserves at artificially low prices in order to pay off debts.

According to the U.S. federal Bureau of Land Management, helium prices have tripled over the past decade, and the reserve is expected to be depleted by 2020.

Now that the supply of helium is dwindling, prices are increasing to reflect the actual value of the rare element. While helium is abundant in the universe, most of it is born out of radioactive decay and is trapped in stars. On Earth, helium makes up less than a thousandth of one per cent of the atmosphere.

In response to the shrinking supply, the British Medical Association launched a campaign in 2015 to ban helium in party balloons, calling it a “frivolous use” of an invaluable, irreplaceable gas.”

At current rates of consumption, the recent discovery in Tanzania will only supply the world for about 7 years, but according to Pete Barry at the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, the methods used by the team could lead explorers to other helium gas fields.

“We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources,” he said.

“We have linked the importance of volcanic activity for helium release with the presence of potential trapping structures…this is badly needed given the current demand for helium.” []

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