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Scientists believe they've found untapped helium reserves
Scientists believe they've found untapped helium reserves
by Daniel J. Graeber
Washington DC (UPI) Mar 1, 2021

The amount of helium in underground geological formations could satisfy thousands of years of global demand, researchers said in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Like other essential commodities, there are supply-side concerns for helium as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. Sanctions and other restrictions mean supplies from Russia's Amur plant, expected to satisfy about 35% of global demand, are no longer available.

Researchers from Oxford University, Durham University and the University of Toronto estimate helium is a $6 billion market. The element is used in everything from fiber optics to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to nuclear technology, where its isotopes are used a fuel. Much of the helium present today is a result of radioactive decay of elements such as uranium.

Research suggests that helium also tends to accumulate in underground natural gas deposits. Oxford scientist had already found a "full suite" of gases, from helium to argon, in samples taken from 22 wells across North America in 2015. Researchers at the time said this meant that estimates of available geological sources of helium may be vastly underestimated.

That background radioactivity that generates helium, meanwhile, also can split water (H2O) into its elemental components of oxygen and hydrogen, another component of the energy transition.

"This new understanding of helium accumulation provides us with a critical start of a recipe to identify where significant amounts of geological hydrogen, as well as helium, might still be found," John Gluyas, a co-author of the report from Durham University, said.

Members of the European Parliament backed measures in early February that would support the adoption of renewable natural gas and hydrogen into the grid as part of a bloc-wide effort to rely less on fossil fuels.

The paper "Primary N2-He gas field formation in intracratonic sedimentary basis" was published Wednesday.

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