When the US privatized the National Helium Reserve in 1996, it began selling off the nation’s helium reserves cheaply, — which depleted the world’s largest supply of the gas. Now, researchers have claimed to have discovered a major new field in Tanzania, which could provide a much-needed boost to global reserves.
Researchers from Oxford and Durham Universities collaborated with with Helium One, a private Norwegian helium exploration company, to search for helium using an experimental method. The research group will present their findings today at the Goldschmidt Geochemical Conference in Yokohama, Japan.
Helium is a rare commodity here on earthWhile helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe, it’s a rare commodity here on Earth because it simply floats away if released. Our world’s supply is created through the radioactive decay from uranium. As uranium decays, helium becomes trapped in the Earth’s crust. While helium is popularly associated with party balloons or airships, liquid helium is heavily used as a coolant for rocket fuel, MRI machines, industrial leak detection, nuclear power and other applications.
In 1903, scientists in the United States discovered vast quantities of the gas trapped in petroleum wells, leading the country to become one of the world’s largest producers, setting up the National Helium Reserve in 1925.
In 1960, the federal government purchased the Bush Dome reservoir to store the US supply, taking out $300 million in loans which would be covered by a predicted rise in helium prices. However, those prices never materialized, and the debt grew to over $1.4 billion. Because of the amount of debt, Congress passed the Privatization Act in 1996, which mandated that the price of helium would be dictated by debt that the reserve had incurred, rather than market price. As a result, helium costs were artificially low, discouraging recycling of the gas and making it easier to simply buy more gas than recapture it. As a result, the reserve is expected to be fully depleted by 2021.
That’s why scientists are so excited about the latest finds in Africa. The newly-discovered fields in Tanzania appear to hold a much higher concentration of helium than previously known, according to the university research team. However, it’s too early to tell exactly how significant the Tanzanian discovery could be, or if these new methods will lead to other tangible finds. The team found high concentrations of helium which they attributed to the tectonic activity in the East African Rift System, according to one of the paper’s authors (PDF), Diveena Danabalan, who is a PhD candidate in earth science at Durham University.
more than twice what's currently held in the US Federal Helium ReserveThe team studied samples at Tanzania’s East African Rift valley, calculating that the field could potentially contain over 54 billion cubic feet of helium, according to Professor Chris Ballentine at Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences. That’s more than twice what’s currently held in the United States Federal Helium Reserve.
Should these detection methods prove to be reliable, they could potentially unlock other fields, and could be a major change in how helium is produced; until now, according to the University of Oxford, helium discoveries have been accidental. As we consume more helium each year in industrial processes, finding new sources will be essential to replace what is lost each year.
The existence of the Tanzanian field has the potential to essentially save the world’s supply of helium for future generations. Without some major overhaul to the world’s strategic reserves however, new discoveries will simply be a stop-gap measure. The rules which govern how helium is produced and sold will need to be overhauled to help preserve the global supply, and ensure that we can still fill balloons on birthdays and use MRI machines.