Helium — a colorless, odorless and tasteless noble gas — is best known for turning voices squeaky and comical, but it's also a crucial part of technology in hospitals and the welding industry.
This noble gas is not only used in party balloons, it's also used in MRI scanners, in basic scientific research, and in growing crystals for semiconductors. For instance, MRI scans need superconducting magnets in order to work, which in turn needs liquid helium to achieve enough temperature for superconducting.
However, even though helium is one of the most abundant elements in the known universe, scientists say that the world's supply of this noble gas is rapidly depleting because it is a non-renewable resource.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson even declared in 2010 that our existing supply would run out within 25 years, because we consume more helium than we produce. This makes the search for helium reserves more urgent than ever.
Now, a team of scientists from the United Kingdom, together with helium exploration company Helium One, made a discovery that could help address the critical shortage of the rare element. This "life-saving" discovery was presented at a geochemistry conference in Japan.
Using a "game-changing" new exploration method, experts from Durham University and the University of Oxford found a large helium reserve in Tanzania.
Researchers found that within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have given off the noble gas from ancient deep rocks and trapped them in shallower fields.
This meant that volcanic activity actually plays a crucial role in the creation of new helium reserves because it gives off the intense heat essential to release gas from the ancient rocks that bear helium.
With the help of Helium One, scientists combined this key insight with geochemical sampling and seismic imaging to identify the reserve.
Oxford Professor Chris Ballentine says experts have calculated that the reserve in one part of the Tanzanian East African Rift valley is likely equal to 54 billion cubic feet.
"This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners," says Ballentine.
If the trapped helium gases are too near the volcano, other gases will mingle with and dilute it. The process of separating out helium would be time-consuming and expensive.
However, Diveena Danabalan of Durham University, who presented the findings in Yokohama, says they are currently working to determine the "goldilocks zone" between the modern volcanoes and the ancient crust where the balance between volcanic dilution and helium release is right.
Photo: Frankie Leon | Flickr