More helium is used each year than we produce. That sounds strange, since helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t stay on earth long – it’s so light that it just floats away. We can only obtain it from reserves found by chance during oil and gas drilling, and supplies are being depleted fast.
This is a problem for all sorts of industries. Helium is spectacularly good at keeping things cool, and that’s useful from scientific research (to freeze out complicating factors in experiments) to spacecraft. It’s used to cool telescopes, the fuel used in the Apollo space vehicles, nuclear reactors, the Large Hadron Collider, and most prominently MRI machines, which take up a fifth of the global use of helium. Helium’s low density also means it makes balloons float, from party balloons to enormous airships, and it can be used in lasers to scan barcodes at supermarket checkouts amongst many more.
As the known reserves of helium are being depleted and becoming privatised, helium’s prices fluctuate massively, and the price of helium has gone up 500% in the last 15 years. Well, not any more. Scientists from Durham and Oxford universities have teamed up with the Norwegian company Helium One to devise a method of predicting the locations of viable helium deposits. They’ve already found a reserve in the Rift Valley in Tanzania so large that it could meet the global demand for several years (it could be as big as 54billion cubic feet (Bcf), compared to a global yearly consumption of 8 Bcf).
Their new exploration method is based on the influence of volcanic activity upon helium trapped deep in the earth’s crust. The decay of radioactive substances like uranium emits alpha radiation, which is just a helium nucleus. Some of this helium gets trapped in cavities in the rock, and can be obtained when the gas is being extracted for other purposes. Volcanic activity produces heat intense enough to release helium from rocks much older and deeper down than we can reach. The helium gets trapped in shallower gas fields, which we can access more easily. The team used seismic imaging and geochemical sampling to find areas where this may have happened.
The next step is to ensure that the reserves aren’t too close to volcanoes, as that would mean that volcanic gases will be mixed in, contaminating and diluting the supply. The team is looking for what they call a ‘goldilocks zone’, where the supply isn’t diluted too much, but enough helium is released to make extracting it economical. Then their method can be applied to other parts of the world with similar geological history to find new resources.
Jennider Oullette, Gizmodo, 28th June 2016, Discovery of Huge Stash of Helium is a ‘Game Changer’ for Industry’, http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/06/discovery-of-huge-stash-of-helium-is-a-game-changer-for-industry/ (accessed 29/06/2016)
University of Oxford, EurekAlert!, 27th June 2016, Huge helium discovery a ‘life-saving fund’, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-06/uoo-hhd062416.php (accessed 29/06/2016)
Helen Briggs, BBC News, 28th June 2016, Helium discovery a ‘game-changer’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36651048 (accessed 29/06/2016)