It’s the second most abundant element in the universe, but precious little of it is found on Earth. So little, in fact, that the U.S. government holds a strategic reserve of the stuff.
Now, the discovery of a vast reserve in Tanzania will ease the pressure.
In recent years, the world’s helium supply has been stretched thin, raising the cost for everything from frivolous to life-saving uses—in addition to filling party balloons, helium is critical for cooling the superconducting magnets in MRI machines, keeping weather balloons aloft, and facilitating many scientific experiments.
On Earth, most helium is produced when radioactive minerals decay, which releases two-proton alpha particles that gain two electrons from nearby rocks to form the element. It then frequently accumulates in natural gas reserves.
Using a new exploration technique, researchers from Durham and Oxford universities in the U.K. found a massive helium reserve in the volcanically active East Africa Rift Valley. “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks,” Diveena Danabalan, a PhD student at Durham University, said in a statement.
Helen Briggs, reporting for BBC News, has more:
The amount of helium is estimated at more than 54 billion cubic feet – which could potentially meet global demand for several years.
The researchers are now working to identify the sweet spot where helium that has accumulated in the Earth’s crust is least diluted by other volcanically released gases like carbon dioxide, making it easy to recover. Once they do, they hope the same exploration technique will apply elsewhere on the planet to reveal more reserves.