Whether for medical use, birthday party balloons or simply making yourself sound like Alvin from the Chipmunks, helium is an essential gas. For the first time, scientists have used instrumentation to detect its presence underground.
Helium One, Norway and Tanzania
According to a statement from Oxford University, researchers were able to detect the presence of a 54 billion cubic feet helium gas field formed by massive volcanic heat in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley.
“To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year,” said Oxford professor Chris Ballentine. “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.”
“This is badly needed given the current demand for helium,” said fellow Oxford researcher Pete Barry.
The discovery was hardly the product of new technology with the discovery relying on plastic pipes and duct tape as well as other everyday materials according to a tweeted photo from the university.
“It may not look like much, but it helped find enough for 1.2 million medical MRI scanners,” the tweet said.
The gas is stable and has a natural unwillingness to interact with other chemicals makes it a sought-after coolant, gas for certain welding projects, the pressurization or rocket engines among other uses and consequently has a demand that nearly exceeds an easily found supply.
While abundant, it’s just not an easy find and when helium is discovered it’s, as often as not, a result of happenstance related to oil and natural gas exploration.
The United States is responsible for the steadiest supply of the gas with Qatar and Russia coming in a distant second and third on the podium. Unbeknownst to many, the United States has a massive underground helium reserve built beneath swaths of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
More on the helium find
“We’ve had a research project for the last few years to find new resources of helium,” said Chris Ballentine, member of the research team and chair of geochemistry at Oxford. “It’s a very significant problem for society in that helium usage has become more and more important in high-tech industry and also medical use.”
Ballentine called it an “amazing discovery” while thanking the Norwegian company Helium One for its financial and manpower contributions.
“They’d noticed some old literature going back to the 1960s suggesting that nitrogen- and helium-rich gases were just bubbling out of the ground” in parts of Tanzania, Ballentine said.
Tanzania is, apparently rife with potential new discoveries and “exactly the type of geological environment we’d been postulating would be perfect for the discovery,” according to Ballentine.
“The techniques that we’re using are very much similar to the approach the oil industry has used to find gas and oil,” Ballentine said. “We look for source rock, we look for a mechanism to release the gas from the source, and we look to understand how gases migrate and look for trapping structures.”
It’s important to note that Ballentine pointed out that no oil or natural gas is present near the site which could lead to a contamination of the surrounding land if accidentally released during the harvesting of the field.