The recent discovery of a large new helium deposit in Tanzania merely delays by a few years the day when world supplies will run out. Mun Keat Looi explains why helium is so vital, how it got so badly mispriced that we used it to fill party balloons, and what we can do to husband it.
At current rates of consumption, the world’s current known reserves will run out sometime between 2030 and 2040. This is why the Tanzania discovery is such a big deal. At an estimated 54 billion cubic feet, it is bigger than the NHR was at its peak.The real breakthrough is in the way it was discovered. Nobody has ever found helium by looking for it deliberately, but only as a side-product of natural-gas exploration. The Tanzanian site, however, was found through modern prospecting. The theory is that rocks in which helium has formed (by radioactive decay) are slowly heated by the Earth’s core, letting the gas leak out, and it then gets caught in underground caves. The prospectors used their knowledge of the Rift Valley’s geology to find potential helium mines.