Discovery Of Vast Helium Reserve Lifts Outlook On World Shortage

Researchers are calling it a "game changer."

30/06/2016 2:15 AM AEST | Updated 30/06/2016 2:15 AM AEST

The discovery of a vast supply of helium in Tanzania could alleviate an impending world shortage of the noble gas, researchers say.

The group from Oxford and Durham universities collaborated with Helium One, a helium exploration company, to find reserves containing an estimated 54 billion cubic feet of helium.

The discovery, announced this week, was made in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley using a new method for identifying reserves of the gas.

“We’re essentially replicating the strategy for exploring for oil and gas for helium,” Jonathan Gluyas, a professor of geo-energy at Durham University, told The New York Times.

Helium has many important uses beyond making your voice sound hilarious or lifting a lawn chair into the sky. For example, helium is required for superconducting magnets, MRI scanners and nuclear research. 

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Helium is required for MRI machines. Professor Chris Ballentine of the University of Oxford called the discovery of massive helium reserves a "game changer."

As an essential resource in medicine and scientific research, helium's steady decline in supply has raised concerns about access for patients and rising costs.

"The price has gone up 500 percent in 15 years,” Gluyas told the Guardian.

The new reserves could provide enough helium to fill 1,200,000 hospital MRI scanners -- or inflate 54 billion party balloons.

Diveena Danabalan, also of Durham University, said that the research shows the importance of volcanoes in the "formation of viable helium reserves."

"Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks," Danabalan said in a statement.

The gas traps are prone to dilution by other gasses, such as carbon dioxide, researchers note. As a result, the next step will be to figure out the best locations to target for extraction.

"We are now working to identify the 'goldilocks-zone' between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is 'just right,'" Danabalan said. 

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