Why this vast helium discovery is being called "life-saving"

You might associate helium with party balloons and squeaky voices, but the gas is a whole lot more important: that's why scientists have been so worried in recent years of a helium shortage. Vital for everything from MRI scanners through to essential nuclear energy production systems, helium's usefulness has traditionally stood at odds with its relative rarity.

That's because, although helium has been known about as an elemental gas for years, until now it's only been harvested as a byproduct.

Instead, amounts of helium have been released during drilling for oil and other gases, a happy side-discovery but one that's been in such small amounts that much of it has been stockpiled to ensure life-and-death applications still have the supplies they need.

Now, a new exploration approach developed by researchers at universities in Oxford and Durham in the UK, along with a Norwegian company called Helium One, has opened the door for more specific helium hunting.

They figured out that helium is most abundant in so-called "Goldilocks zones" nearby – but not too close – to active volcanoes. The heat from that volcanic activity is sufficient to prompt helium's release from ancient rock, but the supplies aren't so close to the volcano so as to be unduly contaminated by carbon dioxide and other gases released by the magma.

Already, the technique has struck helium gold, with a new gas field identified in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.

"By combining our understanding of helium geochemistry with seismic images of gas trapping structures, independent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 Billion Cubic Feet (BCf) in just one part of the rift valley," Professor Chris Ballentine, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, said of the discovery. "This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners."

Until now, known helium resources worldwide amounted to only 153 BCf, Ballentine points out, and the United States Federal Helium Reserve – which is the largest of the organizations stockpiling the gas – has a holding of just 24.2 BCf.

Although groundbreaking, the new system isn't as straightforward as pointing a scanner at the rock and getting a ping whenever helium is underneath. Instead, it'll require comprehensive geological analysis.

"We can apply this same strategy to other parts of the world with a similar geological history to find new helium resources," Dr Pete Barry, also of Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences, says of the system. "Excitingly, we have linked the importance of volcanic activity for helium release with the presence of potential trapping structures and this study represents another step towards creating a viable model for helium exploration."

Helium has proved essential in liquid form for cooling, particularly the superconducting magnets used in MRI scanners, but it's also used in the production of silicon wafer crystals. Arc welding makes use of helium as a protective atmosphere.

Meanwhile, quantum mechanics research has examined two of the fluid phases of helium-4 to understand things like superconductivity, while some telescopes use the gas to fill the spaces between lenses because of its low index of refraction.

Although helium's role in flight is probably best known for its replacing explosive hydrogen in airships, the space program required huge amounts of the gas. The Apollo program, for instance, relied on helium to pre-cool the liquid hydrogen it used to fuel its rockets, and one Saturn V launch demanded a huge 13 million cubic feet of the gas.