There’s a global helium shortage. It’s not among the widely publicized problems of the world, but there is undoubtedly a helium deficit – the noble gas that most of us associate with party balloons and funny squeaky voices.
Outside parties, helium is essential in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because it helps to cool the machine’s superconductive magnets. It is also invaluable in the space industry to clean rocket engines, keep satellite tools cool, and to pressurize the inside of rockets running on liquid fuel. It’s also used to condense hydrogen and oxygen and turn them into rocket fuel.
Even a thing as simple as a barcode reader in a supermarket has helium in it.
Reserves, however, are not exactly abundant – helium is traditionally derived from natural gas in moderate quantities. Now, with growing use in medicine and space, helium reserves are dwindling and replacement is difficult. But a new exploration approach has revealed a potentially huge deposit of the noble gas in Tanzania, raising hopes that the shortage can be dealt with.
A team from Oxford and Durham universities, who worked with Norwegian exploration firm Helium One, recently announced they had come across a deposit of helium in Tanzania’s Rift Valley. Reserves in this deposit may be as much as 54 billion cubic feet (bcf) and possibly even more. Global annual consumption of helium is around 8 bcf.
The team focused their attention on volcanoes in the Rift Valley and studied seismic images of gas-trapping rock formations—that is, they tried to find helium away from gas deposits. The research showed that volcanic activity produces sufficient heat to release helium from rock formations and trap it in deposits nearer the surface of the earth.
The problem, explains team member Diveena Danabadan, is that these deposits are only viable if they are not too close to the volcano. If they are, the helium will be mixed with large amounts of other gases, making it very difficult to extract.
Right now the research team is working on finding precisely these viable helium deposits, so the optimistic results are quite preliminary. Still, there’s cause for optimism, since the approach could be applied to other places with the appropriate geology.
One note that needs making is that these resources are only probable, not proved, so the optimism better be cautious. Another point is that not everyone agrees the world is actually facing a helium crisis. British economic writer Tim Worstall, for instance, argues that helium is constantly generated in nature (from decaying uranium, for one) and all we need to do is liquefy more natural gas to be able to extract more of the noble gas too.
The argument is questionable, since Worstall also argues that, basically, mineral resources are infinite, which they are not, at least not on any useful human timescale. Helium is indeed extracted from natural gas through condensation, and the rise of LNG could mean a rise in helium production. However, these are small amounts of helium that are extracted from natural gas and any significant rise in natural gas liquefaction needs to be economically justifiable. Until this happens—that is, until a serious deficit of natural gas leads to a huge rise in helium production—the world will most likely continue to worry about a helium shortage and laud discoveries as the one made by the Oxford and Durham researchers.
OilPrice.com is a USA TODAY content partner offering oil and energy news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.