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.