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Researchers Find Game-Changing Helium Reserve In Tanzania (cnn.com) 190

An anonymous reader writes from a report via CNN: Helium is an incredibly important element that is used in everything from party balloons to MRI machines -- it's even used for nuclear power. For many years, there have been global shortages of the element. For example, Tokyo Disneyland once had to suspend sales of its helium balloons due to the shortages. The shortages are expected to come to an end now that researchers from Oxford and Durham universities have discovered a "world-class" helium gas field in Tanzania's East African Rift Valley. They estimate that just one part of the reserve in Tanzania could be as large as 54 billion cubic feet (BCf), which is enough to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners. "To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 billion cubic feet (BCf) per year and the United States Federal Helium Reserve, which is the world's largest supplier, has a current reserve of just 24.2 BCf," said University of Oxford's Chris Ballentine, a professor with the Department of Earth Sciences. "Total known reserves in the USA are around 153 BCf. 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," Ballentine added.
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Researchers Find Game-Changing Helium Reserve In Tanzania

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  • by MountainLogic ( 92466 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:27PM (#52409043) Homepage
    Mineshaft Gap [wikipedia.org]
    • Mincraft shaft?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Joce640k ( 829181 )

      How is an extra 7 years supply a 'game changer'?

      To me a 'game changer' would mean we can stop worrying about helium supply, not "it'll still run out in my lifetime".

      • I figured it out: It's game-changing in the sense that people won't have to go to the USA with cap in hand to beg them for some Helium.

      • Re:Just two words (Score:5, Informative)

        by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday June 29, 2016 @06:49AM (#52411777) Homepage

        In a single deposit, that's pretty huge.

        Regardless, the "running out of helium" thing is a bit of hyperbole. For one, right now we waste most of our helium (in industry, not balloons - balloons and aircraft are only a tiny fraction of the total). We could reduce consumption by an order of magnitude by better recycling. Even concerning aircraft, new fabrics like vectran are significantly less permeable than old ones, and new techniques (hybrid airships, phase-change ballast, etc) help avoid the need for venting.

        Helium can't "run out" on Earth because it's part of our atmosphere. Now, chilling it out of the air would be significantly more expensive than recovering from ground reserves - no question there. But from a concentration perspective, neon is about 3,6 times as common as helium, which is in turn about 57 times as common as xenon (by volume). Neon is about [google.is] $70/kg, xenon about $3500. So it's not linear, but helium would probably slot in at around $150, about an order of magnitude more expensive than it is today. Some back of an envelope calculations show that a party balloon contains around 2 grams of helium, meaning that the helium would cost about $0,30. Hardly world changing, from that perspective at least.

        Furthermore, we're not going to be switching to recovering from the atmosphere simply because there will always be more in the ground. We'll move from one deposit to the next, richest to next richest (a downward trend, offset by the upward trend of new finds and the advancement of new technology driving down recovery costs). So long as there's gases in the Earth of any kind, they're going to be more helium-rich than the air. They're also going to be easier to extract the helium from - dilutant gases like CO2, for example, are much easier to freeze out than O2/N2/Ar.

        Lastly, the costs of cryogenic refrigeration are only set to go down. Right now, low temperature refrigeration not only has low thermal efficiency, it also has low carnot efficiency. That is, to say, physics says we can be far more efficient than we actually are. But new refrigeration systems, like AMR (magnetic), allow for much higher efficiencies at cryogenic temperatures.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          It should also be added that we're far from knowing where all of the good helium reserves are - actually it's not gotten nearly as much attention as oil and natural gas, and we're still finding giant deposits of them. We're only just beginning to understand how helium concentrates in certain reserves and not others - a key aspect to locating future deposits.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Whoops, correction: those prices were per cubic meter, not per kg. And per-volume is a better measure for party balloons anyway. So a party balloon full of neon would be about $1 and one full of xenon about $50. So helium would slot in closer to xenon, perhaps around $3-4.

          Now factor in the future potential of more efficient refrigeration of the atmosphere, the use of low-quality ground sources rather than atmospheric, etc.... even wasteful uses like party balloons are going nowhere, even if we find no mo

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            Ugh, can't write straight today. Helium would slot in closer to *neon*, perhaps around $3-4.

        • Helium can't "run out" on Earth because it's part of our atmosphere.

          Except that it's the lightest component of our atmosphere, so it naturally diffuses upwards and eventually heads off into space (I can't remember whether that's escape or being stripped off by the solar wind, but it certainly does go). The helium in ground level atmosphere is a balance of atmospheric helium loss against the seepage of helium deposits from rocks combined with new helium generated as a result of radioactive decay. Sequestration of atmospheric helium would shift the equilibrium point slightly.

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            Except that it's the lightest component of our atmosphere, so it naturally diffuses upwards and eventually heads off into space

            And it's also part of the uranium and thorium decay series, so it's constantly produced.

            Sequestration of atmospheric helium would shift the equilibrium point slightly.

            Insignificantly. The atmosphere loses 50 grams of helium per second and gains 50 from the ground (1.6MT/year). The mass of Earth's atmosphere is 5e15 tonnes. Helium is 5ppmv. You don't have to take the time to run

            • Lets ban Helium in party balloons and use Hydrogen instead, it would be far more fun that way, at least for the pyro kids.

            • Virtually all kids toys are "wasteful products". Why not just ban children?

              Well, in the long term, that would solve all problems with over-consumption of resources.

        • This is a relatively huge deposit, agreed. We do waste a whole lot of helium. In fact, it may be that most of what's wasted is actually from natural gas fields not capturing the helium "byproduct".

          I think you grossly understate that chilling it out of the air would be "signficantly" more expensive than recovering from ground reserves, it's far more expensive than that. A small helium recovery system for NMR/MRI instruments costs on the order of $200k installed, ignoring ongoing maintenance. We looked into o

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            IMHO, it would be interesting if one could use the magnets from the MRI hardware itself for AMR cooling. The magnet is the lion's share of the cost of an AMR system. And AMR is much more efficient at cryogenic temperatures than compression/expansion cycles.

            You know, it's funny, I've read a lot of papers on AMR, including cost analysis studies, and I've never come across anyone considering that possibility yet.

  • by I4ko ( 695382 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:33PM (#52409085)
    Why the f*ck are we still wasting this gas on such stupid things as party balloons. Why wasn't this completely verboten years ago.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:40PM (#52409141)

      Why the f*ck are we still wasting this gas on such stupid things as party balloons. Why wasn't this completely verboten years ago.

      Much of the helium used for balloons is recycled (captured from devices using liquid helium) and the gas in party balloons is actually a very small sector of the helium market. What I don't understand is why the United States is dumping helium from its reserve. This is causing prices to be unnaturally low and there is going to be a massive price shock when the reserve is finally empty. What motivation is there for that?

      • I think you answered your own question.

      • by adolf ( 21054 )

        If it can be recycled and sold for party balloons, it can also be recycled and used for another medical device/other important thing

        Unless you want to tell how it is that "virgin" helium is somehow superior to "recycled" helium, despite both of them being noble gases no matter how many times you use them -- especially when we're running out of the former, and keep letting Little Johnny make chipmonk noises with the latter before releasing it into the atmosphere (or beyond?).

      • there is going to be a massive price shock when the reserve is finally empty.

        Then why don't you buy up the helium now, while it is cheap, and then get rich when the price skyrockets?

        • there is going to be a massive price shock when the reserve is finally empty.

          Then why don't you buy up the helium now, while it is cheap, and then get rich when the price skyrockets?

          Because very few people have vast caverns at their disposal in which to store sequestered gas.

          • Because very few people have vast caverns at their disposal in which to store sequestered gas.

            Isn't that what futures are for? To allow you to speculate to your heart's content without ever providing any kind of benefit to society, just price fluctuations which hinder the real economy.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:43PM (#52409169)

      Why are we using it on:

      Cryogenics (32%)

          Pressurizing and purging (18%)

          Welding (13%)

          Controlled atmospheres (18%)

          Leak detection (4%)

          Breathing mixtures (2%)

      • by fnj ( 64210 )

        Your list isn't very good, as it doesn't break out use as a lifting gas, and it's not at all clear where that is buried in those categories. I have seen the claim that a total of 7% is used in party balloons, weather balloons, scientific balloons, and a very few airships.

        The USGS statistics are the very definition of insanity. In 2015 the US produced from natural gas 76 million m^3, withdrew from storage 24 million m^3, imported for consumption 10 million m^3, and AT THE SAME TIME EXPORTED 67 million m^3. P

        • Can't weather/scientific balloons use hydrogen?

          They only go up once and burst. Why do you need Helium for that?

    • by spire3661 ( 1038968 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:47PM (#52409197) Journal
      Contrary to popular belief, the government doesnt get to control every fucking thing.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        This is exactly the kind of thing that the government should control. We're talking about an element that is consumed at a rate much faster than it is produced naturally, and which escapes the atmosphere if released. Wasting it on silly things today means that important things that actually need it are going to be more expensive tomorrow.

        • by fnj ( 64210 )

          We're talking about an element that is consumed at a rate much faster than it is produced naturally

          Likely so, but I don't think anyone knows what is the rate of natural helium generation in the earth by nuclear decay.

          and which escapes the atmosphere if released.

          That's not a meaningful concept. Helium is constantly being released by the earth into the atmosphere, and constantly escapes the atmosphere, but the concentration in the atmosphere is quite constant, any amount released by humans is a fart in the wi

    • Why the f*ck are we still wasting this gas on such stupid things as party balloons. Why wasn't this completely verboten years ago.

      Verboten by whom? There is no worldwide helium police force.

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot@nOSpam.worf.net> on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @06:03PM (#52409287)

      Why the f*ck are we still wasting this gas on such stupid things as party balloons. Why wasn't this completely verboten years ago.

      Well, technically, the party balloon helium is quite impure, and it often is economically unviable to refine it for scientific usage.

      That's the only reason why it's still around - it costs more to make it useful than to use what we have in the reserves that are usable.

      Contrary to popular belief, the party balloon folks are just as price sensitive, and a bottle of the good He is much too expensive, so they buy the crappy impure He.

      Once supplies dwindle to the point refining party balloon He to lab grade is economically viable, then we won't have He balloons anymore.

      • Sure, but by that time all that impure helium that is being spent today is already gone and cannot be recovered. So once we get to the point where impure helium becomes valuable, we'll have a smaller reserve of it than we would have otherwise had.

      • by fnj ( 64210 )

        Well, technically, the party balloon helium is quite impure, and it often is economically unviable to refine it for scientific usage.

        The second part, after the "and", is complete and utter nonsense. All currently economically viable helium starts out at about 1-7% purity in the selected natural gas fields. It is refined from there to Grade A (99.995% purity). Actually that has been superseded, and nowadays you can obtain helium refined to anywhere from balloon grade, which is anything from 80-99.98%, throug

    • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @06:15PM (#52409349) Journal

      Why the f*ck are we still wasting this gas on such stupid things as party balloons. Why wasn't this completely verboten years ago.

      It's a proven fact that fully 1/3 of all helium production in the world each year goes to making people talk like chipmunks.

      • Though the shitty Skype audio algorithms might start making inroads into that market. I know I sound like a chipmunk more often on Skype than I do huffing balloons nowadays.

    • I hate to be the one to break this to you, but pretty much everything humans do is a total waste. Why are balloons stupider than driving around for no reason, heating/cooling circus size houses, spectator sports, reality TV, political ads, most MRIs, etc. ad nauseum?
      • Because it uses up a limited non-renewable resource that doesn't have a good replacement for many important applications.

        Driving around for no reason is kinda sorta comparable in that it uses up oil, but it can be replaced with something else in most applications.

        • Horsefeathers. You can get as much He as you want from gas well waste, rocks or Jupiter, it just costs energy. Energy that humanity wastes on whatever baloney seems important. You can rest assured that a hundred years from now there will be plenty of He around at a price. Probably enough low purity stuff for balloons at a price.
          • And if there isn't, and we can't, say, make new MRI machines, then what? Do we at least get to dig out your corpse and hang it as a warning to future generations?

            Sorry, but I'm not going to trust the nebulous predictions of "we're just going to science and engineer shit out of it eventually". Not unless you have very specific figures to back up those assertions, and reasonably conclude that, yes, by the time helium shortage will impact critical applications, we will definitely have other cheap sources of it

            • What a strange thing to say. All the MRIs I've seen done were done for one reason - to move money from one place to another place. Sure, there is some vague unproven claim of medical necessity. If your precious Helium is not around at any price (impossible!) I've got great faith in the ability of humans to find some other excuse to move money from one place to another.

              It is so funny how people get worked up about one element and ignore the giant oceans of waste flowing by constantly. No biggie though, at l
          • by dbIII ( 701233 )
            It's not that easy. There is not a lot being produced on earth by natural means and the artificial means require a lot of work to build stuff before energy is applied.
    • I agree. Hydrogen party balloons are much more fun.

  • by frnic ( 98517 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @05:39PM (#52409131)

    Seriously, click bait much? Yes, it is a large find, but at 8 BCF/year it is about 6 or 7 years of supply, that is NOT a game changer for humanity, that is a game changer for the people that will make a fortune rationing it out until we run out of helium.

    • It's a game-changer for Tanzania, though.

      Ot it could be, at least. A significant source of foreign investment capital, which can be (but probably won't be) used to help lift the country into the 21st century (or at least late 20th).

      Now, if they have enough sense to build some power plants, highways/railroads/factories with some of that income, they could be in good shape by and by

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      It is just stupid journalism: "game-changer" "breakthrough" "revolutionary" "unheard of" bullshit. Apparently, the masses like it that way.

  • The shortages are expected to come to an end

    The inability of human beings to think in a term longer than a few months has always amazed me. This doesn't solve the problem, it merely postpones it. Helium escapes unless recaptured. If the rate of generation of helium from alpha decay is less than the rate of consumption, we will run out of helium one day - it's only a question of when.

    It's also amazing that we could have a shortage of a material when there are giant balls full of the stuff in the sky. But hey, that's how the cosmos works.

    • Guess what fusion reactors produce? Still think we will eventually run out?
      • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *
        Learn 2 math? Your fusion reactors are off by several orders of magnitude compared to consumption. So to answer your question: Fusion reactors produce a tiny, tiny amount of helium - certainly not enough to even cover the cost of collecting it, let alone hoping to commercialize it. So yeah, we will eventually run out.
        • by slew ( 2918 )

          Learn 2 math? Your fusion reactors are off by several orders of magnitude compared to consumption. So to answer your question: Fusion reactors produce a tiny, tiny amount of helium - certainly not enough to even cover the cost of collecting it, let alone hoping to commercialize it. So yeah, we will eventually run out.

          Non sequitor. Sure, getting helium from fusion reactors is probably a futile exercise, but that doesn't mean we'll run out.

          Although there's some evidence that helium can come from alpha particle emitters (and we have a pretty much endless supply of radioactive rocks), apparently this research ignores the original source of the helium and simply postulates that volcanic activity can release helium stored in deep rocks where it can be dissolved in water and transported to the same types of formations that na

          • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) *

            and we have a pretty much endless supply of radioactive rocks

            And it has taken those rocks billions of years to build up the current stockpiles of Helium, which we will deplete in 100 years or so. In fact, there were more of those rocks in the beginning. Now there's a lot of lead and iron and other products of decay. So the maximum rate of production of Helium is long over.

            Sure, Helium will be produced effectively forever. But again, it's a rate thing. While isotopes can be decaying all over the planet all the time that doesn't mean you'll be able to harvest it - it

            • And it has taken those rocks billions of years to build up the current stockpiles of Helium, which we will deplete in 100 years or so.

              No, the helium is leaking out the faster the more of it there is, so the reservoirs fill until they reach their balance point and then stay there. From empty to full could take a billion years, or it could take 2 hours. It would probably be better to think of them as springs than reservoirs, in terms of production rate rather than storage volume.

  • That's going to be really useful once I finally win the lottery and buy an airship.

  • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Tuesday June 28, 2016 @06:34PM (#52409487)
    As soon as we get cost-effect fusion energy, we'll have all the helium we could want. Inhale all you want, we'll make more! Long term, I see no real need to stockpile helium.
  • Not a game changer.

    Helium like any other rarer materials should be handled more careful.

  • There will never be a shortage of helium. Only a shortage of really cheap helium.

    Helium is continuously produced by alpha decay of radioactive materials inside the earth. It exists in various concentrations in all natural gas reserves.

    Some of those reserves (e.g. some wells in Texas or the one now found in Tanzania) have unusually high helium concentrations, making production costs much lower. The U.S. government used the Texas wells to set up a strategic reserve in the early to mid 20th century (when zeppe

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