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New Helium

September 10, 2016

Helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe. It accounts for about one out of every 12 atoms. Most of it was formed in the Big Bang, with the rest forged in the hearts of stars. In fact, the Sun converts more than 600 million tons of hydrogen to helium every second.

Yet here on Earth, helium is one of the rarest elements. It’s almost never found on its own. It’s usually mixed in with natural gas. And the few deposits that have been found are playing out. Production in the world’s biggest helium deposits, in the Texas Panhandle, has been declining for years. But there are many uses for helium — it lifts blimps, is used in rockets, and has many other uses in science and industry.

Scientists recently discovered a giant new helium field in Tanzania. They found it by using a technique that promises even more discoveries in the future.

Researchers from Norway and the UK suggested that volcanic activity can release the helium gas that’s mixed with other elements. They found a volcanic field in Tanzania that fit their profile. And when they drilled earlier this year, they struck helium. It’s the first helium deposit ever found intentionally — all the others were found during drilling for oil and gas.

It’ll take a while to start extracting the helium. But the scientists hope their technique will lead to new discoveries — making one of the most abundant elements in the universe a little easier to find here on Earth.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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