For the first time ever, researchers have tracked and located a helium gas field. And the discovery, presented Tuesday during the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Japan, could help allay fears about a global helium shortage, which could affect such sectors as medicine and manufacturing.
The new helium field is located in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley, a continental rift system characterized by lots of moving tectonic plates. The researchers think that heat from volcanic activity in the region has helped release the gas from ancient rocks, where it had been trapped.
Although helium is perhaps best known for inflating balloons (and making your voice sound funny when it’s inhaled), it is also a critical component in many machines and industrial activities, mostly because it is so stable and doesn’t react easily with other chemicals.
Liquid helium is used as a coolant for the magnets in high energy accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, and in MRI machines; as a gas, it’s applied in certain types of welding and is also used to help pressurize the tanks in some types of rocket engines.
Even though helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, there’s concern that it may be running dry here on planet Earth. Helium, like natural gas, is typically retrieved after it comes bubbling up from deep within the earth. But until now, no one had ever intentionally uncovered a helium field. Rather, the gas has typically been discovered accidentally during other industrial activities, usually oil and gas exploration.
Today, a majority of the world’s helium comes from the United States, and a large portion of those supplies are currently held in the Federal Helium Reserve, a vast underground store beneath parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Other sources include gas fields in places such as Qatar and Russia.
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