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Helium and Essential Gas: Medically Important Helium Not in Crisis

Aug 21, 2015 04:30 PM EDT

Previous studies had hinted strongly that helium might run short soon and leave us without that vital gas used in MRI scanners, semiconductor manufacture, and party balloons. But helium is in a state of crisis no more, researchers from the universities of Durham and Oxford found after analyzing natural gas samples in North America. They talked about their findings at the recent scientific conference Goldschmidt 2015, in Prague. 

In conducting that research, they analyzed natural gas samples from 22 wells in the U.S. and Canada, using mass spectroscopy to measure for noble gases, with an emphasis on helium, neon and argon, according to a release

"We identified neon isotope tracers which show a strong association between helium and groundwater. This means that in certain geological regions, groundwater transports large volumes of helium into natural gas fields, where trapping potential is greatest. This suggests that we have probably underestimated the volumes of helium which are actually available to explore," said Diveena Danabalan, who led the research, in the release. She explained that because helium is the second-lightest element, it often leaks into space and is a finite resource.

Helium is also used in superconductor manufacture and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in its work addressing the origins of the universe, the release noted.

With that in mind, it's good to hear that deep below mountains and geysers and other geologic formations, more helium may be hiding for us to find, according to Danabalan in the release: "On a continental scale, and we are talking about a line running right down the Rocky Mountains, we are seeing processes which are releasing the existing helium which has been built up deep underground over hundreds of millions of years. In some places, like in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, the deep helium is released directly into the atmosphere. In others, we are seeing that the deep helium which was released when the Rocky Mountains formed has percolated via the groundwater into the same underground reservoirs where we find natural gas. This means that there are almost certainly reservoirs of helium which we had not anticipated. More importantly, understanding how and why helium arrives in these reservoirs means that we now know where to look for new helium resources."

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