Scientists might finally have overcome a global shortage of helium – potentially saving millions of lives in the process.
Helium might be best known as the gas that keeps party balloons in the air and makes people’s voices squeaky. But the gas’s extremely low boiling point allows it to serve a range of other important purposes – being key to MRI scanners for medicine and nuclear power.
A shortage in the live-saving gas had therefore panicked scientists who worried that we might run out. The only way to find the gas has been by accident – turning it up while drilling for oil and gas – and if it is let out into the atmosphere it floats up and into space.
The danger had led doctors to call for a ban on using helium for frivolous activities like party balloons, in an attempt to conserve it. The price of helium has surged 500 per cent in the past 15 years as researchers struggle to find more of it.
But now a team from Oxford and Durham Universities has made a huge discovery in Tanzania that has developed a brand new way of finding helium. Working with Norwegian firm Helium One, the scientists found a “world-class” helium gas field in Tanzania.
The gas was discovered by using the same expertise from oil and gas exploration to look into how helium was generated underground, in an attempt to understand where it would accumulate. They found that volcanic activity provides the huge amounts of heat that is needed to push the gas out of ancient, helium-bearing rocks.
The scientists found the new field in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, where volcanoes push helium from deep rocks and into shallower gas fields.
The field probably has 54 billion cubic feet (Bcf) in just one part – enough to fill 1.2 million MRI scanners – according to the researchers. We use about 8Bcf per year, and the world’s largest helium supplier holds only 24Bcf.
Professor Chris Ballentine from the University of Oxford’s department of Earth sciences said: “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.”
The find is a vital way of replenishing the supply, said professor Jon Gluyas from Durham University’s department of Earth sciences. “We have to keep finding more, it's not renewable or replaceable,” he said.
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