New exploration technique finds massive Helium reserve in Tanzania

The dwindling availability of helium and because it is so scarce in the earth’s atmosphere has led to conceptual plans – if not yet projects – for the extraction of Helium from the lunar topsoil.

Helium(4He) is the second most abundant element in the known Universe (after hydrogen) but only makes up 5.2 parts per million (ppm) of the Earth’s atmosphere. Helium-3 (3He) is an isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. It is not radioactive and very rare on Earth (7 parts per trillion) but exists in recoverable concentrations in the lunar topsoil (in the top 2 -3 m of lunar regolith). It is even more abundant on the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

But a new exploration technique has been used to find old helium, trapped in ancient rocks underground, which after being released by volcanic activity, moves into shallower gas fields closer to the surface. Earth scientists from Oxford and Durham universities working together with Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One have found a vast reserve of Helium underground at the Rukwa Basin in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.

Helium One has applied for and secured 20 Prospecting Licences with a further two applications submitted. All licences are held 100% by the Company, have exclusive rights for helium and can be renewed for up to 9 years.

Within the portfolio are 3 distinct project areas, these are referred to as Rukwa, Eyasi and Balangida. All contain known helium occurrences with concentrations ranging between 2.5% – 10.5% helium and demonstrate the ideal geological conditions for large gas accumulations to be present.

Rukwa Basin – map Helium One

Helium One estimates a “Prospective Recoverable Helium Resource (P50) of 54.2 billion standard cubic feet. This resource occurs in 27 leads, defined by 2D seismic and is supported by data from two legacy exploration wells.”

ScienceAlert writes:

The find – estimated to be nearly seven times the total amount of helium consumed globally every year – will help allay concerns over Earth’s dwindling known supplies of the natural resource, which is crucial for things like MRI scanners, nuclear energy, and detecting industrial leaks.

…. Earth scientists from Oxford and Durham universities worked together with Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley. …. “We show that volcanoes in the Rift play an important role in the formation of viable helium reserves,” said researcher Diveena Danabalan from Durham University. “Volcanic activity likely provides the heat necessary to release the helium accumulated in ancient crustal rocks.”

But while the volcanoes help to free the trapped helium, depending on their proximity to the gas reserves, they can also end up wasting the precious element. …

…. “[I]ndependent experts have calculated a probable resource of 54 Billion Cubic Feet (BCf) (1.5 billion cubic metres) in just one part of the Rift Valley,” said Oxford University’s Chris Ballentine. “This is enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.”

“To put this discovery into perspective,” he added, “global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year (226 million cubic metres) and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world’s largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf (685 million cubic metres). Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf (4.3 billion cubic metres).”

But despite the massive potential of the new gas field, even more exciting is that the way we found it. Before now, helium had always been discovered accidentally, but with what the scientists now understand about volcanoes and helium geochemistry, researchers can now go looking for the gas, meaning Rift Valley could soon be followed by other massive hauls.

The team’s research is being presented this week at the Goldschmidt 2016 geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan.


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