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Massive Helium Discovery: Is It the End of the World Helium Shortage?

Jun 28, 2016 07:34 AM EDT
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The threat of a global shortfall in helium supplies may no longer be a problem, given the discovery of a sizeable helium gas reserve in Tanzania. The discovery was reported by a group of British university researchers working with Helium One, a company based in Norway.

Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, but it is far from abundant on our planet. The second lightest element, helium is observably lighter than air, as you can see when you let go of a helium balloon. Helium can easily leave the Earth's atmosphere.

The helium available on Earth tends to come from the process of the radioactive decay of uranium and other heavy elements. Helium atoms emerge from the elemental breakdown, and while most of them do escape out to space, some get trapped in deposits beneath the Earth, much like natural gas. In fact, helium is frequently a by-product of natural gas extraction.

In the United States, rich natural gas fields in land between Amarillo, Texas and southern Kansas have proven fertile producers of helium. Found some 15 miles north of Amarillo, the Cliffside Gas Field alone provides 2 billion cubic feet (BCf) each year, according to figures reported by Popular Mechanics in 2012. That's equivalent to about 56.6 billion liters.

But industry watchers have been warning that our rate of helium consumption has been outpacing its production, and projected a deficit in supply. In 2010, The Independent quoted experts saying that the world's helium would be depleted in 25 to 30 years.

The discovery in Tanzania will have forecasters scrambling to adjust their predictions. The newly-found gas reserve was located in the Tanzanian East African Rift valley, as reported by a joint study team made up of Oxford and Durham University researchers.

"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... Total known reserves in the USA 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," said Oxford University earth scientist, Chris Ballentine, to Popular Science.

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