Helium is a non-toxic, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that is used extensively in both its gaseous form as well as its liquid form. It is the second lightest element known to man and is well known for its use in airships, weather balloons and party balloons. Its uses however go far beyond this, in fact in its liquid form it is an essential cooling agent, used in magnetic resonance imaging scanners (MRI’s) as well as extensively in the space industry where it is used to clean rocket engines and cool satellites. It is also an essential part of the manufacture of rocket fuel and is utilized in nuclear energy, welding, industrial leak detection and is even found in something as simple as the barcode readers used in shops worldwide.
It is produced as a result of radioactive decay deep in the earth and to date was believed to be largely concentrated under the American Great Plains, at the time making the US the biggest supplier of helium in the world. At its peak, America was producing more than 90% of the total amount of usable helium across the world.
Since the year 2000 however, usage has risen to more than 15 million kg per year and in 2012 it was declared that the reserves of helium in the US were down to only 30% of the world’s total and these were forecast to run out by 2018. There is in fact now an acknowledged global shortage, even with the construction of additional helium plants in Russia and most significantly Algeria and Qatar.
This increased consumption in conjunction with increased production costs has steadily pushed up the price of helium, in fact there has been an increase of over 500% in the last 15 years.
Following extensive explorations, Helium One; a Norwegian exploration company, in conjunction with both Durham and Oxford university, have discovered a huge deposit of helium gas in the Rift Valley in Tanzania, this is the first time helium has ever been found intentionally. The deposit is believed to be as large as 54 billion cubic feet, in fact some believe it could even be significantly more than this. This amount could satisfy the current global annual demand of 8 billion cubic feet for almost 7 years. The Rift Valley is however also home to a number of volcanoes, and any of the helium that is located too close to any of these volcanoes will be either very difficult to extract or impossible to extract. Diveena Danabalan, one of the lead researchers from Durham University said “The distribution of high helium seeps along active faults shows increased communication between the shallow and deep crust. This combined with the presence of gas traps in the area suggests that there may be a significant helium resource.”, “we show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves,”, “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.”
Studies are currently being untaken to more precisely locate the deposits however after a period of real concern in regards to the global supply of helium, anxious parties are starting to feel optimistic, in fact the amount of helium found in just one section of the Rift Valley is reportedly enough to fill over 1 million MRI scanners.
Professor Chris Ballentine, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences, said “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.”, this colleague Doctor Pete Barry then added, “We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources.”
The Rift Valley is an area that already has significant land ownership disputes, most notably between the Maasai and the government, who continue to challenge what they believe to be the illegal infringements by the government on their ancestral lands. Over recent years this has already resulted in frequent and often violent evictions of some indigenous communities from their ancestral lands. There are concerns that the large scale mining of helium could result in a significant increase of these types of evictions, not to mention a risk to the safety of the employees working on these projects, as the level of resentment towards them amongst the indigenous communities continues to grow.