Energy

With World Helium Running Low, Huge Deposit Found In Africa

REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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Craig Boudreau Vice Reporter
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As the world faces a helium shortage, scientists say they have found a huge new deposit in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.

Researchers from Oxford and Durham Universities teamed up with Norway-based exploration company Helium One and found volcanic activity can heat certain rocks enough to release helium into gas fields closer to the surface, as reported by CBC News Monday.

“We show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves,” Diveena Danabalan from Durham University told Science Alert in an interview published Tuesday. “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks.”

Researchers estimate the amount of helium in the cache to be about 54 billion cubic feet, according to a piece published by Live Science Monday.

“We sampled helium gas (and nitrogen) just bubbling out of the ground in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley,” Chris Ballentine, geochemist at Oxford University told Live Science. “By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas-trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 billion cubic feet [1.5 billion cubic meters] in just one part of the rift valley.”

“Global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year (nearly 8 trillion cubic feet) and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf (685 million cubic metres).” Ballentine told Live Science. “Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf (more than 24 trillion cubic feet).”

The news comes as a welcome discovery as the world has been facing a helium shortage. Phys.org reported in 2010 that reserves could have been tapped as early as 2035.

The shortage was so severe that the BBC ran a story in 2013 where some scientists were asking if “wasting” helium on party balloons was a prudent decision. “We’re going to be looking back and thinking, I can’t believe people just used to fill up their balloons with it, when it’s so precious and unique,” Cambridge University chemist Peter Wothers told the BBC.

Balloonsblow.org also ran a story compiling some quotes from scientists who think using helium to fill balloons is nothing but a waste of a finite resource.

Helium has uses far more important than just filling up balloons for parties or making your voice sound like Mickey Mouse, it is also used for MRI scanners, nuclear energy and detecting industrial leaks.

“This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners,” Ballentine said in a press release Monday.

Jon Gluyas of Durham University, one of the researchers working on this discovery, told Live Science that the find may only be a fraction of what’s available in the Tanzanian valley.

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