Technology & Science

Huge helium deposit found in Africa

Scientists believe they have discovered a huge new helium deposit — and the technique they used to find it could put an end to the global helium shortage.

New prospecting technique could bring an end to worldwide shortage

The British Medical Association voted in 2015 to campaign for a ban on frivolous uses of helium for party balloons over concern about the shortage of the gas.

Here's something to celebrate with a big, bright bunch of helium party balloons: scientists believe they have discovered a huge new helium deposit — and the technique they used to find it could put an end to the global helium shortage.

You may be most familiar with helium as the lighter-than-air gas that makes balloons float on the end of a string and makes your voice sound squeaky after you breathe it in, but it has a huge range of more serious and important uses for airships, scuba diving tanks, MRI scanners, welding, industrial leak detection and even in the Large Hadron Collider.

Worldwide helium supplies have been running out, and Nobel prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson estimated in 2010 that they could be tapped out by 2035 or 2040. The British Medical Association voted in 2015 to campaign for a ban on frivolous uses such as party balloons in light of the shortage.

Tom Abraham-James, founder and CEO of Helium One, collects helium gas from a natural water and gas seep near Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, in November 2015. Bubbles just in view in the 'puddle' contain up to 10 per cent helium. (Peter Barry/University of Oxford)

But now a new, huge helium reserve has been found in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, announced researchers at Oxford and Durham universities in the U.K., working with the Norway-based exploration company Helium One, at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan, today.

The researchers say many other reserves around the world could be found using the technique they developed to find that reserve.

Gas seeping out of the new Tanzanian reserve contains up to 10.6 per cent helium, and the reserve is estimated to hold about 54 billion cubic feet (1.5 billion cubic metres) of helium gas in total.

"This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners," said Chris Ballentine, a University of Oxford researcher who co-authored the study, in a news release.

For comparison, entire global reserves are thought to be about 35.2 billion cubic metres, and the world uses about 227 million cubic metres per year.

Accidental finds

Up until now, helium has been mostly found accidentally during oil and gas exploration.

In this study, the researchers decided to use oil and gas exploration techniques to do a targeted search for helium. They looked for the types of rocks that typically produced helium and combined that with seismic images of underground structures that could trap gases. They also showed that volcanic activity provides the heat necessary to release the gas from the rock.

Helium has a huge range of uses. It's an important coolant in machines like MRI scanners, which use superconducting magnets. Helium is a powerful coolant because it has a boiling point of -268.9 C. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

"We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources," said Peter Barry, a University of Oxford researcher who sampled the gases for the study, in a news release.

The researchers are still working to refine their technique. Durham University researcher Diveena Danabalan noted that gas traps too close to a volcano likely contain large amounts of other volcanic gases that would dilute the helium, and work continues "identify the 'Goldilocks zone' … where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is 'just right.'"

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