A new approach to gas exploration has exposed a huge helium gas field, which could address the increasingly critical shortage of this vital yet rare element.

According to research presented by Durham University PhD student Diveena Danabalan at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan, the natural store of helium found in the Rift valley in Tanzania contains an estimated 54bn cubic feet of the noble gas, alleviating fears of a global shortage.

A research team from Durham and Oxford universities, working with Helium One, a Norway-headquartered helium exploration company, uncovered the huge resource after applying expertise gleaned from oil and gas exploration to understand how helium is produced in rocks under the ground and where it accumulates.

“This is a significant find,” said Jon Gluyas, professor of geo-energy at Durham University and a member of the discovery team. “There are reserves of helium gas, but they have been depleting quite quickly. The price has gone up 500% in 15 years.”

The steep rise has occurred despite the discovery of a huge natural gas field in Qatar that contains a small percentage of helium gas. “We have to keep finding more, it’s not renewable or replaceable,” he added.

“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.”

Professor Chris Ballentine, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford

Helium is used in MRI scanners, nuclear research facilities, and for specific industrial tasks such as leak detection. Vast amounts are needed to keep superconducting magnets cool at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern near Geneva.

Helium One and the UK scientists found that heat from volcanoes in the east African Rift valley released helium from ancient rocks buried deep underground. It then became trapped in shallower gas fields.

Professor Chris Ballentine, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, said, “Independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley. This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf. Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. 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.”