Helium-rich samples have been discovered in UK coal seams, prompting speculation not only of a potential new source of the noble gas, but also that its presence might further enable the safe production of shale gas.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) recently sampled deep methane gas from an exploratory coal bed methane field in central Scotland, and disused coal mines in central England.

To the intrigue and excitement of researchers, high levels of helium gas were found at each site.

The discovery has prompted speculation that, if these natural deposits are present in the right volume, it could open up a new helium play in the UK with large volumes of this valuable – and often hard to source – gas for commercial sale.

Phil Kornbluth, of Kornbluth Helium Consulting and also on the Editorial Advisory Board for gasworld (US Edition), cautioned that based upon initial reports only, it seems unlikely that there would be any implications as a future source of helium.

“Just because helium is detected, does not imply that there are commercial concentrations to be found. In fact, shale gas is never felt to be a potential source of helium, because the shale rock is considered too porous to contain helium,” he explained.

helium periodic table

Double play

The discovery has also promulgated the possibility that it could boost the production of shale or coal gas in the UK, as it could greatly enhance both the level of safety and, therefore, the public perception of such operations.

It’s thought that the presence of high helium levels could help to safely recover shale gas from underground sites, as any gas leaks from deep underground would be accompanies by a rise in helium levels in the surrounding groundwaters, which could be easily detectable.

Chemical testing for methane leaks at gas extraction sites could also be deployed, the combination of which might go a long way to addressing long held public concerns over perceived contamination risks or other related hazards.

The discovery and its body of research was published in Chemical Geology, and was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Scottish Government, the University of Edinburgh, and SUERC.

Helium, often the subject of a fragile supply chain and period of shortage, has been added to the EU’s Critical Raw Materials List in recent weeks, among materials that are designated as such as risks of supply shortage and their impacts on the region’s economy are higher than those of most of the other raw materials.

Helium added to EU Critical Raw Materials List

It is hoped the list should help incentivise the European production of critical raw materials through enhancing recycling activities and, when necessary, to facilitate the launching of new mining activities. It also allows to better understand how the security of supply of raw materials can be achieved through supply diversification, from different geographical sources via extraction, recycling or substitution.