Environment

Helium Fields Forever?

Experts develop technique to locate Earth's helium reserves.

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Experts developed a technique to locate Earth’s helium reserves, uncovering one in Tanzania’s Rift Valley. Previously, reserves were found only by chance. | Carsten Peter/National Geographic Creative

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When prospectors discovered the first underground helium reserve in 1903, they deemed the gas useless because it wasn’t flammable and couldn’t be sold as fuel. Over a century later, liquid helium is an invaluable coolant for MRI scanners, and the gas also has applications in nuclear power, deep-sea diving and (of course) party balloons. Yet supplies on Earth are finite and unreliable because reserves have only been found accidentally during petroleum exploration.

Credit: Jay Smith

Now, experts have discovered one of the world’s largest helium fields in the Tanzanian Rift Valley — this time, on purpose. A team led by Durham University geologist and former oil prospector Jon Gluyas, together with Oxford University geochemist Chris Ballentine, adapted oil prospecting methods to suss out ways Earth might concentrate helium gas generated naturally by underground radioactivity.

The Tanzanian reserve will likely provide enough helium for over 100,000 MRI machines, and the team’s methods can easily be applied elsewhere on the planet. Pump up the party balloons and celebrate.

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