Future Supply of Helium

Future Supply of Helium

Author: Thomas Hinger

Helium has many applications. It is mainly used for cooling of electromagnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), CERN’s particle accelerator. Other applications include welding, party balloons, and weather balloons.

Helium is produced by nuclear decay of uranium and thorium in the crust of the earth. 99.997 % of it has escaped into the atmosphere during periods of tectonic activity over the last four billion years. A small fraction has been trapped by impermeable layers of rock together with natural gas in concentrations up to 7 % by volume. Helium for commercial use is extracted from natural gas. The US currently provides three-fourths of the worldwide helium. Concerns have been raised that we are getting close to a world shortage of helium.

Diveena Danabalan, Durham University, UK, and colleagues analyzed the isotopes of helium, neon, and argon from gas samples from 22 wells in the United States and Canada by mass spectroscopy to get a better understanding of how helium is produced, transported, and trapped in the Earth. They found that helium which has been built up deep underground over hundreds of millions of years is being released. The released helium dissolves in groundwater, which transports it to natural gas deposits. The scientists assume that huge new sources of helium may be in the western mountain regions of North America; reservoirs of helium which had not been anticipated.

It is not yet clear where exactly the noble gas is hiding and how to best extract it. However, the isotopic analysis method might help to detect new helium resources in other parts of the world.


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