Searching for new sources of helium

The gas helium is invaluable for scientific research and is used in its liquid form for, among other things, reaching temperatures close to absolute zero. It is also, next to hydrogen, the most abundant material in the universe. That is well known. What is less well known is that our own supply of helium comes from underground gas traps as a byproduct of natural gas exploration. Thus the world’s supply is limited which means that we should not be wasting it on party balloons and the other frivolities.

One good piece of news is that the US government has extended the lifetime of the Federal Helium Reserve for many more years. It had threatened to shut it down which meant that the helium sources would have been depleted.

But it would help if we could find more sources. The catch is that we did not know which gas traps contain large amounts of helium. But new research on how helium found its way into the known gas traps hints that there might be other undiscovered sources and suggests ways in which we might find them.

They analysed natural gas samples from 22 wells throughout the US and Canada and discovered that wherever helium was present, there was also a second chemical that is only ever associated with ground-water.

Since known helium traps appear in regions such as the Rocky Mountains that were formed from ancient tectonic movements, the team reckon it may have been these climactic events occurring 135 million years ago that released helium into the groundwater in the first place.

Since these tectonic events happened all over the planet, it means there is potentially several traps full of commercial quantities of helium throughout the world, said Danabalan’s colleague Christopher Ballentine of the University of Oxford.

The problem is finding them. “We need to study maps that have been made for that period that infer groundwater direction, which will hopefully allow us pinpoint geological regions that might contain helium traps,” said Danabalan.

Even if new sources are discovered, this still does not mean that we should waste helium.


  1. Sunday Afternoon says

    Another recent use of Helium is in hard disk drives. With He being close to an ideal gas, the fluid turbulence from the high speed moving parts is reduced compared with air, resulting in a quieter mechanism. Does being able to store more data in a hard drive count as a frivolous use of He?

  2. Who Cares says

    Even if new sources are discovered, this still does not mean that we should waste helium.

    At least the fix to the law also includes a fix to the mandatory sell below market rates part. That should (eventually) allow for others to step in and produce helium as well.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    This article surprises me. The solubility of He in water is extremely low: 0.0015 g/kg at 20 degC. I always assumed He was produced at roughly the same rate nearly anywhere in the Earth’s crust and would be captured only in those places that happened to have a gas-impermeable cap. I suppose over geologic time even the tiny amounts of He that can dissolve in water can add up to a lot, and the movement of the water could increase the chances of transporting it under a good cap, but it still seems like finding He that had NOT been transported in water would be nearly as likely as finding He that had been.

  4. StevoR says

    Our Moon?

    I understand from a few places that that is one good place to mine / collect He-3 yeah?

  5. Dunc says

    Yeah, there’s a fair bit of He-3 in the lunar regolith, but there are just one or two minor practical issues around harvesting it on any significant scale…

  6. thebookofdave says

    Helium is a radioactive decay product of heavy elements, especially Thorium and Uranium. Are there sufficient quantities of Helium dissolved in dissolved in cooling water to make fission reactors a potential source? What about nuclear waste products?

  7. lanir says

    Sunday Afternoon #1: Yes, that’s still not a great use for helium although they don’t appear to be that common. SSD’s are slowly overtaking spinning platter drives. It will be interesting to see where that ends. Also the original helium hard drives I saw were 6tb. You can get a 6tb normal hard drive now.

  8. Nick Gotts says

    …and of course there’s its vital use in enabling people to talk in amusingly squeaky voices!

  9. Sunday Afternoon says

    @lanir (#8):

    The helium filled HDDs are marketed to data centres as the higher capacities enabled by He can command a premium price. Yes, air-filled drives have caught up with the initial capacities of the He drives, but the He drives have moved on also, with a 10TB model now available. The current growth area for HDDs is in data centres -- all that data that you access from your phone or other device needs to be stored on something. Large arrays of HDDs (and millions of them with He) form a huge fraction of the repositories for the world’s stored digital data.

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