Helium is useful for more than just inflating your birthday balloons — as a matter of fact, it plays a key role in a number of medical, scientific, and industrial processes. Yet despite being one of the most abundant elements in the Universe, our planet is currently experience a global helium shortage. This is mainly because helium is difficult to mine and store, and only a few countries are involved in the helium industry.
Thanks to new research from the University of Toronto, the University of Oxford, and Durham University, however, we may have found the solution to keeping the helium industry inflated. By modeling the way that helium travels through the Earth’s crust, the researchers were able to predict where new reservoirs of helium should form.
The study included contributions from Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a University Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto, and was published in Nature.
Helium is used in everything from MRI machines to particle colliders, yet if we don’t address the world’s helium shortage, these industries will be at risk. Recent changes in helium production levels and the global helium supply chain have made this situation even more concerning over the past several years.
What’s more, most of today’s helium sources are a byproduct of methane or carbon dioxide gas production, which poses serious problems for our environment. Combined with the fact that helium is difficult to mine — any helium that escapes during the mining process will be lost in our atmosphere — it’s clear that we need a new method if we want to keep the helium industry afloat.
To address this growing problem, the researchers behind the study investigated how naturally occurring helium moves through the Earth’s crust. By modeling these sub-surface regions of the Earth, the researchers were hoping to find untapped helium reservoirs that could address the helium shortage while also offering a more environmentally friendly helium source.
Their models showed that helium deep below the surface of the Earth can become trapped in bubbles of nitrogen gas released by sub-surface water. These bubbles then rise up through the crust, eventually becoming blocked by rocks near the Earth’s surface. This results in helium gas fields that can be mined from beneath the rocks.
By studying this model, the researchers realized that high concentrations of nitrogen gas could indicate where they might find untapped reservoirs of helium. They applied this idea to a sedimentary basin in North America, and just as expected, they were able to predict the amount of nitrogen and helium present in the sub-surface region.
Crucially, this new method — searching for helium gas in nitrogen deposits — offers an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional helium production. Unlike methane and carbon dioxide, tapping nitrogen gas doesn’t result in carbon emissions.
“Helium is in critically short supply worldwide, and current production methods are associated with significant carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change,” Sherwood Lollar said in a press release.
“These results may enable the identification of alternative, carbon-free sources of helium that are accessible due to natural processes.”
Going forward, the researchers hope that their model will help address both the global helium shortage and the environmental impact of the helium industry.
Helium is a critical natural resource, and with the help of this study, its future won’t be up in the air for much longer.