Helium is a vital natural resource. Among other valuable uses, it plays an essential role in scientific research because in its liquid form it enables researchers to reach temperatures close to absolute zero on the Kelvin scale. What many people don’t realize is that helium is obtained from underground reserves and that these are finite and thus should be carefully conserved and not wasted on frivolities like balloons, making voices high pitched, and the like.
There were fears that helium reserves were running low but now comes welcome news about new reserves found in Tanzania as a result of a deliberate search using new techniques.
The discovery in Tanzania is the result of a new exploration approach for the precious gas that is essential to spacecraft, MRI scanners, nuclear energy, according to the Oxford University statement . Helium also fills party balloons.
This is the first time helium has been found intentionally, said the statement. Until now, the gas has been found in small amounts accidentally during oil and gas drilling.
Independent experts have estimated the helium discovery is about 54 billion cubic feet, Oxford professor Chris Ballentine said.
“To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year,” he said in the statement. “This is a game changer for the future security of society’s helium needs, and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”
What is important to realize is that these new reserves by themselves do not solve the helium problem because it only provides about seven years’ supply. So we still need to use it carefully. What is significant about this story is that we may now have a better way to search for new sources rather than depending upon serendipitous discoveries.