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5 July 2016

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St Hugh’s College Professorial Fellow’s Vital Helium Discovery

A team from the universities of Oxford and Durham have announced a success in a new Helium exploration approach.


A new helium exploration approach has been announced at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Yokohama, Japan. The first use of the new technique resulted in a large quantity of Helium being discovered in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley.

St Hugh’s Professorial Fellow in Geochemistry, Chris Ballentine, is joint head of the research team. A collaborative effort between geologists at Durham and Oxford universities, the find has been described as a “game-changer”. Helium is a precious gas formed by the slow radioactive decay of terrestrial rock. Whilst perhaps best known in everyday life for filling party balloons and giving you a squeaky voice, it has a wide usage. Among other things, it is employed as a coolant for medical MRI scanners, satellite instruments and the Large Hadron Collider, as well as being a component part of barcode scanners.

Balangida (Tanzania) - Prof Ballentine article. Photo by Dr Pete Barry

In all other prior cases, Helium has only ever been found by accident whilst drilling for oil and other gases; this is the first time a field has been intentionally sought and discovered. Professor Ballentine explained how this was accomplished:

“When exploring for oil and natural gases it is well established that the most likely places to find commercial reserves must contain a set of essential geological ingredients. For helium exploration we have taken this old concept as a starting point and applied our understanding of helium origin and behaviour.

“The East African Rift Valley is a 6000km rent through the continent of Africa, splitting the crust near some of the oldest rocks on Earth. Within the rift the crust is stretched and thinned, enough in places for volcanoes to break through. In Tanzania, volcanic centres  seem to form the helium release mechanism we have been looking for; both heating and fracturing the proximal ancient crust.

“Geological traps have been formed by different layers of sediments on the floor of the Rift valley as it has developed. This ticks all the ingredients we need for helium resource discovery.”

Prior to the discovery in Tanzania, present usage levels would have seen worldwide probable reserves of the gas used up by 2030 or 2040. Global annual consumption is currently about 8 Billion Cubic Feet. Just one part of the new discovery has been independently estimated to contain a probable resource in the region of 54 Billion Cubic Feet.

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