Helium may be a good safety indicator for gas extraction fields

We always say that natural resources are going to be less and less important. However, their significance is going to decrease gradually through decades – for now we have to find ways to safely deal with gas extraction. Sometimes nature itself offers a nice opportunity to make extraction more secure – in UK scientists have discovered high levels of helium in coal seams.

Discovery of high-levels of helium in underground rock may lead to extraction – helium is used in medicine, science experiments as well as filling up party balloons. Image credit: Robertgombos via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Helium is typically used in party balloons, but it does occurred naturally in the ground as well. Typically, people don’t think much of it, but now scientists from the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish University say that high helium contents in UK’s coal seams could help combating public concerns about natural gas extraction. How? It will improve monitoring process – any leaks will be easily identified because of presence of helium. This, of course, is good news for shale and coal gas industries using fracking to relax the gas from hard underground rock.

Fracking involves cracking splitting the rock with high-pressure fluids. This has caused public concerns for years and scientists struggled to find ways to address it well. However, discovery of helium is also helpful in another field – extraction of methane from deep coal beds. A simple chemical test allows seeing whether methane at gas extraction sites has escaped from deep shale, because helium is easy to detect.

Furthermore, helium can be valuable as well – large volumes of this gas could be extracted and sold for industrial use (as well as party balloons, of course). Medical scanners and large-scale experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN use helium all the time. Helium extraction, while it would not surpass significance of natural gas and methane, could be an added bonus for gas companies.

Scientists discovered high-levels of helium from several samples from methane field in central Scotland and disused coal mines in central England. Contents of underground gas varies depending on depth and helium happens to be a god indicator, allowing engineers to see if the gas is natural or a leak from deep shale. Dr Stuart Gilfillan, one of the authors of the study, said: “Providing that helium levels in groundwaters are found to be low prior to exploration taking place, any presence of deep gas following shale gas activities will increase helium levels and allow robust detection of any contamination”.

People are afraid of everything they don’t understand. Extraction of natural gases is something humanity will continue to do through the years, so the industry must find a way to do it safely as well as without raising unnecessary public concern.


Source: University of Edinburgh

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