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Scientists May Have Just Found 600,000 Olympic Swimming Pools of Helium

It could help ease the helium shortage.
Image: Shuttershock

They may not cross paths often (except maybe for birthdays), but scientists and party supply purveyors can jointly breathe a sigh of relief. That's because, on Tuesday, researchers announced the discovery of massive reservoirs of helium gas in Tanzania that could potentially add 600,000 Olympic swimming pools of the element to the world's stock. It might even be enough to ease the helium shortage that's frustrated scientific efforts around the world.


Helium doesn't just fill party balloons—it's used everywhere from MRI scanners to the Large Hadron Collider. We need it for all kinds of stuff.

In the East African country of Tanzania, researchers say they've found a reservoir estimated to hold up to 54 billion cubic feet (bcf) of the element, in just one part of the rift valley. That's enough to fill over 1.2 million medical MRI scanners, once it's converted to its liquid form. Peter Barry, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford, was excited when he was invited to join prospectors from resource extraction company Helium One in 2015 to investigate seeping helium bubbling up in the southwest of the African country.

Tom Abraham-James (Founder and CEO of Helium One) collecting helium gas from a natural water and gas seep near Lake Eyasi, Tanzania, November, 2015. Bubbles just in view in the 'puddle' contain up to 10 percent helium. Image: Pete Barry

Currently, US helium stores sit at around 150 billion bcf—and the new discovery could amount to nearly seven times the amount the world consumes each year, these researchers say. As most of the current stock is locked up in natural gas deposits, a supply of easily accessible helium has not always been available. Barry and the team, who used techniques more typically used for oil exploration, found that volcanoes seem to play an important role for releasing and capturing helium.

"I think of it like a recipe," Barry explained to me in a video chat from Japan, where he is presenting findings at the Goldschmidt Conference, which covers geochemistry and related fields. "You need to have really old crust; we're talking billions of years."


Just any old crust won't do. The eastern part of the African continent is splitting apart, exposing ancient crust, in an area with volcanic activity. "So you have this massive thermal mechanism. When you combine the two, and you have a volcano sitting directly underneath the old crust—which is full of helium—the thermal [mechanism] allows the release of helium."

The third and final thing you need, once the helium is released, is some sort of capping structure that will stop the lighter-than-air element from flying into space. The helium has to build up in places that aren't too close but not too far from the volcanic activity, so as to not dilute in the volcanic gases, nor be affected by the tectonic movement and escape, said Barry.

The current helium shortage has a complicated backstory. Although it's the second-most-abundant element in the universe, helium can still be hard to find here on Earth. The US held sway over the market for much of the twentieth century, accumulating the resource at the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas to supply upcoming fleets of airships in the 1920s. After not exactly filling the sky with blimps, the 50s and 60s saw a boom in industrial use of the chemical element. (Helium is useful as a coolant for stuff like superconducting magnets, because it stays as a liquid at absolute zero under normal pressures.)

An attempt to sell off the reserve in the 90s caused a strange market for the element to emerge. Prices stayed low enough for researchers and party stores to continue purchase it, but there wasn't enough to entirely keep up with demand, so there were chronic shortages.

Gaps in availability eventually caused prices to rise, experiments to sometimes be canceled, and party suppliers to complain they were unable to stock their shelves with balloons.

Researchers are hopeful that more helium could be found in other parts of East Africa, where conditions seem to be right for it, but there's a chance these reservoirs could be found in more regions with young faultlines and trapping mechanisms. Barry believes their new approach could have a significant effect on the world's helium supply.

"If someone found an oil deposit that could fuel the world for the next seven years or ten years, that would be the biggest news story ever. The fact that [this one find] is so big could potentially totally change the market," said Barry.