There have been global shortages of helium gas
The reserve could fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners
Helium may best be known as the lighter-than-air gas used to fill party balloons, but it’s also key to medical applications like MRI scans and for nuclear power.
For years, there have been global shortages of the element – Tokyo Disneyland was once forced to suspend sales of its helium balloons.
That’s all set to change, however, with the discovery of what researchers called a “world-class” helium gas field in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley.
A group of researchers from Oxford and Durham universities, working with the Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One, have discovered what they believe is a vast supply of the element in an unlikely place.
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“Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks,” according to a statement from the University of Oxford. “Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and have trapped this helium in shallower gas fields.”
However, the gas traps are often located too close to a volcano and the helium becomes heavily diluted by other gases such as carbon dioxide.
“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,” said Diveena Danabalan, of Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences.
Danbalan is presenting the findings at this month’s Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Japan.
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Why is this so important?
The team estimates that just one part of the reserve in Tanzania could be as large as 54 billion cubic feet (BCf), which is enough to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.
“To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 billion cubic feet (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,” said University of Oxford’s Chris Ballentine, a professor with the Department of Earth Sciences.
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“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,” Ballentine added.