Helium discovery blows away shortage worries | Science News for Students

Helium discovery blows away shortage worries

Huge reservoir of rare, valuable gas found beneath Tanzania
Jul 13, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
helium balloons

A reservoir of more than a trillion liters (260 million gallons) of helium gas has been found beneath the African nation of Tanzania. That’s enough to fulfill global helium demand for everything from party balloons to MRI machines for years.

ISHMAEL ORENDAIN/FLICKR (CC-BY 2.0)

The world’s known stores of helium have just ballooned. Scientists have uncovered a vast reservoir of more than a trillion liters (260 million gallons) of the gas. It sits beneath Tanzania in East Africa. That’s enough helium to satisfy the world’s needs for about seven years.

Researchers announced the find June 28 at the Goldschmidt Conference in Yokohama, Japan.

Helium is used for more than just making balloons float and voices sound squeaky. This gas has become essential for scientific research. It also is a critical component of the cooling systems in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners used in medicine. The helium for all of these uses does not come from the atmosphere, though. It comes from the ground.

helium bubblesThe element accumulates underground during the radioactive decay of certain elements, such as uranium. That helium initially is trapped in rocks. It can escape when surrounding rock melts during volcanic activity. Once it gets to the surface, though, helium easily escapes Earth’s atmosphere. And once it does that, it is gone forever. That is one reason the gas is so rare on Earth.

Previously known helium reserves were discovered by chance during efforts to find oil and gas. Because helium was important for space exploration and the military, the U.S. government for decades has been collecting and storing the gas. This stockpile is called the Federal Helium Reserve. It has become the world’s largest source of helium.

But the reserve was going to run dry within the next few years. That led to fears there may be a global helium shortage. That could cause problems in the fields of medicine and science. This new discovery may help to set those fears aside.

Diveena Danabalan is a geologist at Durham University in England. She and her colleagues found the new helium reserve. They applied geologic know-how to their helium hunt. They used information about how helium accumulates in the Earth. They also imaged underground formations that trap gas. That led the team to discover five spots in Tanzania where water and helium-rich gas bubble to the surface from underground reservoirs.

The researchers predicted that they will be able to find more helium reservoirs in the future. That should help to meet the world’s helium needs.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

atmosphere   The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

element    (in chemistry) Each of more than one hundred substances for which the smallest unit of each is a single atom. Examples include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, lithium and uranium.

geology   The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

helium   An inert gas that is the lightest member of the noble gas series. Helium can become a solid at -458 degrees Fahrenheit (-272 degrees Celsius).

magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)     An imaging technique to visualize soft, internal organs, like the brain, muscles, heart and cancerous tumors. MRI uses strong magnetic fields to record the activity of individual atoms. 

radioactive decay   A process by which an element is converted into a lighter element through the shedding of subatomic particles (and energy).

reservoir    A large store of something. Lakes are reservoirs that hold water. People who study infections refer to the environment in which germs can survive safely (such as the bodies of birds or pigs) as living reservoirs.

uranium   The largest naturally occurring element known. It’s called element 92, which refers to the number of protons in its nucleus. One form (isotope) is radioactive, which means it decays into smaller particles. The other form is stable.

volcano  A place on Earth’s crust that opens, allowing magma and gases to spew out from underground reservoirs of molten material. The magma rises through a system of pipes or channels, sometimes spending time in chambers where it bubbles with gas and undergoes chemical transformations. This plumbing system can become more complex over time. This can result in a change, over time, to the chemical composition of the lava as well. The surface around a volcano’s opening can grow into a mound or cone shape as successive eruptions send more lava onto the surface, where it cools into hard rock.

NGSS: 

  • MS-ESS3-1
  • HS-PS1-8
  • HS-ESS3-2
  • HS-ESS2-3

Citation

D. Danabalan et al. New high-grade helium discoveries in Tanzania. Goldschmidt Conference, Yokohama, Japan, June 28, 2016.

Further Reading

A. Grant. “Year in review: Big stride for superconductivity.” Science News. Vol. 188, December 26, 2015, p. 25.

C. Crockett. “Big exoplanet may be surrounded by helium.” Science News, June 21, 2015.

S. Ornes. “Helium: Not so super after all.” Science News for Students. November 2, 2012.