Winning helium hunt lifts hopes element not running out

1-trillion-liter reservoir of rare gas found in Tanzania


HEFTY HELIUM  A reservoir of more than a trillion liters of helium gas are stashed away beneath Tanzania, enough to fulfill global helium demand for everything from party balloons to MRI machines for years.

Ishmael Orendain/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The world’s known helium reserves just ballooned. Applying gas-finding techniques from the oil industry, scientists uncovered a vast reservoir of more than a trillion liters of helium gas beneath Tanzania. That’s enough to satisfy the world’s helium needs for around seven years, the researchers announced June 28 at the Goldschmidt Conference, a geochemistry meeting being held in in Yokohama, Japan. The find may allay fears that a global helium shortage will hit when the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve — currently the world’s largest helium source — runs dry within the next few years.

While previously known helium reserves were discovered by chance during oil and gas exploration, geologist Diveena Danabalan of Durham University in England and colleagues applied geologic know-how to their helium hunt. Helium accumulates underground during the radioactive decay of unstable elements such as uranium. That helium, though initially trapped, can be liberated when surrounding rock melts during volcanic activity. Using this information as well as seismic imaging of gas-trapping underground formations, the researchers discovered five spots in a volcanic region of Tanzania where water and helium-rich gas bubble to the surface from underground reservoirs.

The researchers predicted that they will be able to find more helium reservoirs and help meet society’s helium needs. Those needs go beyond just making balloons float and voices sound squeaky: Helium is essential for scientific research and a critical component of the cooling systems that allow medical MRI scanners to function.

HELIUM HUNT Helium-rich gas bubbles to the surface in a natural water seep near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Pete Barry

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