por Thomas Dworetzky
, Contributing Reporter | June 29, 2016
The great helium shortage may have finally popped – like a balloon – thanks to a new discovery of a huge gas field near the volcanoes in the Tanzanian Rift Valley.
The techniques used to locate the field marked an even more important “find”. It is the “first time that helium has been discovered intentionally” and thus, could lead to the uncovering of other helium fields, researchers told the Goldschmidt conference in Yokohama, Japan.
The research team from Oxford and Durham universities, was led by Professor Chris Ballentine and Professor Jon Gluyas, working with the helium exploration firm, Helium One.
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"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 (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley,” Oxford Professor Chris Ballentine noted in the statement. “This is around the size of 600,000 Olympic sized swimming pools with helium gas. That's nearly seven times the total amount of helium consumed globally every year and enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MR scanners when converted to liquid helium."
To put this find in further perspective, he advised in an Oxford University statement that global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the U.S. 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,” he added.
The find comes as a relief to all in the imaging community as the growing helium shortage has been much in the news of late. Concerns had reached such a level that just last year the British Medical Association had gone on record advising that regulation of the scarce resource might become necessary.
Durham's Professor Jon Gluyas called the collaboration between industry and academia “outstanding,” adding that “the impact of this and expected future helium discoveries will secure supply for the medical scanning and other industries.”
The team applied geological methods typically used to hunt for oil to search for the precious gas.
The approach yielded a vital insight – that proximity to volcanoes may be a key indicator for the presence of helium.
"We were able to show that volcanoes in the rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves,” said Durham researcher Diveena Danabalan, who presented the findings to the conference. “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks, but the location needs to be just right. If the gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide."
The rift find may just be the start of a new golden age of helium abundance. During development of the helium-hunting in 2015, the team had postulated significant helium resources in the Rocky Mountains.
"Now we understand the techniques, we anticipate more large helium finds," said Ballentine.