A team of researchers has developed a new approach to find natural reserves of helium — a key element in MRI scanners, welding, industrial leak detection and nuclear energy — the known reserves of which are quickly running out.
The first use of this method, developed by scientists at Oxford and Durham universities, has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania.
Until now helium has never been found intentionally — being accidentally discovered in small quantities during oil and gas drilling.
The study, presented recently at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan, shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks.
“We show that volcanoes play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves. Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks,” said Diveena Danabalan of Durham University.
“However, if gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, just as we see in thermal springs from the region (Tanzanian East African Rift Valley),” she added.
Danabalan and her team are now working to identify the “goldilocks-zone” between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is “just right”.
The discovery of helium gas field in Tanzania using the new approach is being considered as a game changer for the future security of society’s helium needs.