Scientists Found a Huge Reservoir of Much-Needed Helium

Helium is used in everything from particle accelerators to MRI machines, and a dearth of the gas has long plagued researchers

Telescope Mirror Segments
A scientist looks at mirror segments for the NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. The mirrors underwent cryogenic testing—made possible by scarce helium gas—to see how they would respond to extreme temperatures. Now, scientists have found a huge cache of helium gas that could make the element more accessible to scientists. NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham

The federal government stockpiles it. Scientists hoard it. Entire industries—and even lives—could end without it. In this case, the “it” in question is helium, a gas used in everything from particle accelerators to MRI machines. A dearth of helium has long been of grave concern to researchers. But today, they may just be blowing up balloons anyway: As Helen Briggs writes for BBC News, a gigantic reservoir of the in-demand gas has been discovered in Tanzania.

Over a trillion liters of helium have been found beneath Tanzania’s volcanic Rift Valley, Briggs reports. The find, which was announced at the Goldschmit geochemical conference, is a huge one: enough to fulfill the world’s demand for the gas for years to come.

It’s the first time researchers have discovered the gas on purpose, according to a press release. Helium is usually found by accident during searches for natural gas. But this time, the team used a new exploration approach that combines geochemistry with seismic imaging of volcanic structures to look specifically for helium. Their work paid off: They discovered a cache of up to 54 billion cubic feet of the gas.

Helium is all over the universe—it’s the second-most abundant element. But on Earth, it’s much less common. It can’t be artificially produced and must be extracted from natural gas wells. Inside these gas traps, ancient uranium decays. There’s just one problem: It takes forever to do so. The half-life of the most prevalent uranium isotope is billions of years old—it’s older than Earth itself. Over time, helium forms from the decaying uranium and is trapped beneath Earth’s surface, but it takes its sweet time.

That presents a huge problem for researchers who rely on helium. As Francie Diep writes for Innovation News Daily, the gas is used to cool super-conducting magnets, clean fuel tanks, produce things like fiber-optic cables and create next-generation missiles and machines. In recent years, it’s been in such short supply that people have been preparing for an emergency-level shortage (the U.S. Navy, for example, is designing diving suits that cut down on helium use for deep dives). Helium resources are so scarce that the United States tracks reserves annually, has an entire program dedicated to conserving and selling the gas, sets prices, and holds annual auctions.

“This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs,” Chris Ballentine, an Earth scientist who co-authored the paper, says in a release. He points out that the newly-found helium (which must still be extracted) is enough to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. Sounds like there will be enough to spare for the balloons of celebrating scientists, too. 

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