Worldwide, our usage of Helium grows year on year. From MRI scanners in medical facilities, nuclear reactors and even party balloons.
Helium is not a resource we can simply create more of – The gas is formed during the natural radioactive decay of Uranium. It has also not been a focus of exploration for many years, despite looming shortages worldwide.
This is due, in part, to the selling of huge Helium reserves by the United States – Estimated to be about 40 percent of the total market supply. The United States began stockpiling the rare gas in the early 1960’s, as a buffer against future shortfalls. However, in 1996 an act passed (“The Helium Privatization Act”) prevented the Government from increasing the stockpile. In response, the United States started selling off this huge stockpile at below market prices, discouraging exploration and development of new deposits. A new bill has since been passed to maintain the reserves going forward.
Enter Helium one and the East African Rift Valley – One of the marvels of geology
To date, Helium has been discovered accidentally, usually while drilling for oil. The Norwegian company, Helium One, has taken a new approach – Their research shows that the heat created in active volcanic zones is enough to release Helium from rocks that carry this precious gas into trap systems, if present.
Of course, the laws of geology still apply, and things get complicated – The gas has to be trapped in such a way as to form an economically viable deposit, and the source area, if related to intense heat produced by volcanism, needs to be far enough away from the heat source so as not to be contaminated by other volcanic gasses. This is defined by the researchers as the “goldilocks zone” – a term often used in astrophysics to define the planetary orbit around a star that has just the right conditions for life to form. The similarity in goals, although with distinctly different outcomes, is easy to see.
In line with their models, the researchers believe that the Helium located in Tanzania is related to high intensity heating and fracturing of both the Mozambique belt (Proterozoic) and the Tanzanian Craton (Archean), by East African Rift System.
They have further found strong movement of Helium from deep to shallow crustal levels along fault structures (Of the East African Rift System), increasing the chance of good Helium trap systems to be developed.
The East African Rift System can be divided into two branches - The Western Rift, also called the Albertine Rift, extends from the Northern end of Lake Albert to the Southern end of Lake Tanganyika, the deepest lake in the world - a startling 1470 metres!
A volcanic system in the East African Rift Valley, as seen in Ethiopia.
The Eastern Rift, also called the Gregory Rift, lies within the Mozambique Belt. It has been shown that the Eastern Rift is caused by the ongoing separation of the Somali and Nubian plates, driven by a rising thermal plume. Much of the energy required to release Helium from source rocks is related to this system.
All these years of research led to one, amazing achievement – Helium One has started to define a resource of about 54 billion cubic feet, in one small portion of the Rift Valley! Exploration continues to this day, with high hopes of expanding the resource to one that will support us for many generations to come.
Most of us don’t realize how close we were to the cessation of vital equipment requiring Helium, across many industries that impact our daily lives.
Information for this article was sourced from –
African and Arabian Tectonic Plates