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New helium discovery could boost the world’s dwindling supply

Helium isn’t only good for party balloons. It’s used in everything from the Large Hadron Collider to MRI machines, and we’ve been running low for the last few years. A new discovery in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley could loosen up supplies considerably, though. Scientists there have uncovered huge deposits of the gas in ancient volcanic rocks, and this could lead to more discoveries in the future.

Helium is an important element as its properties are somewhat unusual in nature. It’s used in many sensitive applications because it’s completely inert, thus it won’t react with other materials. That’s why you see super-high capacity hard drives filled with helium. There are only a handful of elements (the noble gases) that have the same property, and Helium in particular is useful because it has very low freezing and boiling points — both very close to absolute zero (-459.67 degrees F). Liquid helium is used to cool the superconducting magnets in the MRIs, and on a larger scale for the LHC’s magnets.

Helium is the second most common element in the universe after hydrogen, but most of that is produced in stars via nuclear fusion. The concentration of helium on Earth is very low, where it is formed over eons as a consequence of radioactive decay in rocks. This has made helium increasingly rare in recent years. Helium often found with natural gas deposits, but it has to be captured and stored properly. Any helium that is released will keep rising through the atmosphere until it’s lost to space.

noble gases

The US federal government once oversaw most of the world’s helium production, but a plan to move to private mining has been slow to take off. This is one reason for the lower supply and higher price. The first step is identifying underground sources of the gas. In this case, geologists were able to identify the helium deposit by looking for places where volcanic activity in the past would have released helium from ancient rocks, allowing it to rise up and become trapped in shallow gas fields. The amount of helium discovered in the new field is believed to be around 54 billion cubic feet. That’s enough to meet all global demand for several years on its own.

The next step is to find the most efficient location to drill into the deposit. That could still take some time, so the high prices for helium will remain in place for now. Scientists hope that the same geological clues that led them to this helium deposit will reveal more in the future.

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