JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The discovery of a huge helium gas field in East Africa is a "game changer for the future security of society's helium needs" amid a global shortage, researchers in Britain said Tuesday.
The discovery in Tanzania is the result of a new exploration approach for the precious gas that is essential to spacecraft, MRI scanners, nuclear energy, according to the Oxford University statement . Helium also fills party balloons.
This is the first time helium has been found intentionally, said the statement. Until now, the gas has been found in small amounts accidentally during oil and gas drilling.
Independent experts have estimated the helium discovery is about 54 billion cubic feet, Oxford professor Chris Ballentine said.
"To put this discovery into perspective, global consumption of helium is about 8 BCf per year," he said in the statement. "This is a game changer for the future security of society's helium needs, and similar finds in the future may not be far away."
Researchers found that the intense volcanic heat in Tanzania's East African Rift Valley has released helium from ancient rocks and trapped it in shallow gas fields, the statement said. The researchers worked with Norway-based exploration company Helium One.
The new approach can be used to find helium resources in other parts of the world with similar geological history, Oxford researcher Pete Barry said in the statement.
"This is badly needed given the current demand for helium," he said.
Oxford tweeted a photo of some of the low-tech components used in the exploration, including a roll of duct tape and plastic piping propped on a stick in what looks like a shallow pond.
"It may not look like much, but it helped find enough helium for 1.2 million medical MRI scanners," the tweet said.