Don’t panic partygoers – scientists won’t be restricting helium balloons just yet as a new discovery could solve a shortage of the gas. Reserves of the gas have been running out and doctors a year ago were calling for a ban on its use in party balloons, branding it frivolous. But scientists have found new helium sources in Tanzania, which could be critical to the role helium plays not only in fun, but in life-threatening medicine. Helium does not just make voices go squeaky – its extremely low boiling point means it is used for super-cooling and is critical in MRI scanners, nuclear power and leak detection.
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.
Professor Chris Ballentine, University of Oxford
Until now helium has been found accidentally during drilling for oil and gas. But a team from Oxford and Durham Universities, working with the Norwegian firm Helium One, applied the expertise used in oil and gas exploration to find how helium was generated underground and where it accumulated. Their research showed that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks. Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from deep rocks and trapped it in shallower gas fields.