Used in balloons and industry, gas is hard to capture and supplies are diminishing and its price rising. Researchers think it may be found under ground.
Don’t cancel your balloon order just yet! New sources of helium may soon be discovered. For years, scientists have been warning that the second most abundant substance on earth (helium) may be running out. Beyond party balloons, helium is an incredibly important material for industry, used as a coolant for superconducting magnets in everything from hospital MRI scanners to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the gas, which is lighter than air, easily escapes through the atmosphere. This makes capturing it both difficult and expensive. Most of the world’s supply is trapped underground in North America, along with other natural gases such as methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. “Given the current demand for helium and the fact that reserves aren’t being discovered fast enough to cope, this has made helium steadily increase in price,” researcher Diveena Danabalan said in an email to the Star. Danabalan, a graduate student at Durham University in the U.K., said that since the U.S. slowed down its helium extraction, most helium has been discovered “serendipitously” along with other gases. Danabalan, and a team of researchers at Durham and Oxford University, believe they may have found another source of the sought-after gas. After analyzing natural gas samples from 22 wells in the U.S. and Canada, the team found a link between groundwater and helium. Danabalan believes this implies large volumes of helium are dissolved in groundwater and transported into natural gas fields. “This suggests that we have probably underestimated the volumes of helium which are actually available to explore,” she said in a release. The research was presented at the Goldschmidt conference in Prague, the world’s premiere geological conference. Danabalan said her hope is that the research will help find “hot targets” for exploration, leading to active extraction of the gas. As petroleum does, helium has a source, release mechanisms, migration pathways and a “trap,” such as an oil well has, Danabalan said. “Now that we know that groundwater is the pathway, we are that much closer to finding helium reserves,” she said. “We need to identify where and why this has occurred in the past — where it might bring the helium to a geological structure — then we have our resource,” she said.