Diversyfing During the Downturn No Laughing Matter

Exploration success puts a smile on the face of industry-academic collaboration.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 3 - 2016


'I quit my job at the helium balloon factory, I refuse to be spoken to in that tone.Stewart Francis, comedian.

Helium is the second lightest element and is the second most abundant element in the observable universe. Most terrestrial helium today is thought to have been created by natural radioactive decay of thorium and uranium. This helium is trapped with natural gas (up to 7%). Once released into the atmosphere helium readily escapes into space. Thinking of ways to diversify during the Downturn I was interested to read that, with it's squeaky-voice producing capabilities, helium, the noble gas coming in at number 2 in the Periodic Table, is actually far more critical to more important things than props for clowns; like MRI scanners and leak detection in nuclear energy facilities. However, reserves are quickly running out and until now helium has never been found intentionally - generally only being accidentally discovered in small quantities during oil and gas drilling.

In an attempt to reverse the declining reserves of helium, a research group from Durham and Oxford universities, working with Helium One, a Norway-based helium exploration company, has developed a brand new exploration approach that has resulted in the discovery of a significant helium gas field in Tanzania. Their research shows that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks. Within the East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from ancient deep rocks and the gas has then been trapped in shallower gas fields.

“This is an outstanding example of industry and academia working together closely to deliver real value to society. The impact of this and expected future helium discoveries will secure supply for the medical scanning and other industries.” said Professor Jon Gluyas (Durham University).

Diveena Danabalan (Durham University) said, “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks. However, if gas traps are located too close to a given volcano, they run the risk of helium being heavily diluted by volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide, just as we see in thermal springs from the region. We are now working to identify the ‘goldilocks-zone’ between the ancient crust and the modern volcanoes where the balance between helium release and volcanic dilution is ‘just right’.”

Professor Chris Ballentine (University of Oxford) added, “By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 Bcf in just one part of the rift valley ... To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 Bcf per year and the US 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.”

Diversifying during the Downturn anybody?


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