Got Helium?

July 25, 2012

Helium is an element that is lighter than air, nonrenewable, and becoming scarce.  It is used for many purposes, including air balloons, airships such as the Goodyear blimp, and, as a shield in arc welding processes using copper and and aluminum. But perhaps most importantly, for cooling the superconducting magnet used in medical MRI scanners.

The federal government sets the rate and announced this past Spring that prices would increase from $75.75 per thousand cubic feet in 2012 to $84.00 in 2013.  This price, coupled with a shoddy federal policy and dubious industry setup, all but promises a shortage.

Despite its rarity on Earth, helium was concentrated under the American Great Plains and was available for extraction as a byproduct of natural gas production.  The greatest reserves of the stuff were in the gas fields of Kansas and panhandles of Texas & Oklahoma. 

Because helium was crucial to miliary reconnaissance and space exploration, in 1925, Congress mandated that the government encourage private producers to sell their helium to the government under the Federal Helium Program and store it in what is is known as the Bush Dome in Amarillo, Texas, the country’s largest helium reserve.

Helium production is worldwide, but the largest percentage (75%) comes from the U.S.  Approximately 30% of the world’s helium supply comes from the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve held underground in a natural reservoir that is connected to a pipeline that links stored helium with nearby helium refineries and natural gas fields in Kansas.

Helium tanks at the Large Hadron Collider.

But considering its complex geology, production of helium in the past couple of years has been halting.  Private industry hasn’t been as interested in producing helium as Congress had hoped it would be when it decided to get out of the helium business. 

Where it was once mandated that the federal government keep a reserve of the gas, Congress reversed policy in 1996 and moved to privatize the federal helium program, requiring all of the government’s supplies to be sold off by 2015.  Suffice it to say, new producers of helium have not yet emerged leaving consumers with spiking prices and shrinking supplies.

As supplies tighten, the biggest impact could be on healthcare and small-scale research.  Helium is the only  element on Earth than can keep the superconducting magnet found in MRI units cold.  Helium, in short, is what makes magnetic resonance imaging  possible.  If there were no helium to service an MRI, the unit could become damaged permanently and need to be replaced.  Considering the current price tag on an MRI scan, this will, no doubt, adversely affect patient care and jack up the cost exponentially.

No Solution Forthcoming

The Helium Stewardship Act, introduced in April, is under current consideration by the U.S. Senate.  It would extend the 2015 deadline for the selling off of the Federal Helium Program and otherwise allow the government to continue supplying world markets with helium, selling it at market price instead of the government set rate.  If the bill isn’t passed, the funding vehicle for helium operations will expire giving MRI manufacturers and researchers the shaft.  But as with any other matter of national importance and global consequence that does not involve bailing out banks, no action has been taken on the bill since its introduction.

References:

Helium – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

©2012 Peyton Farquhar and Prattle On, Boyo™.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peyton Farquhar and Prattle On, Boyo with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Prattle Encore | Defeat Snatched from the Jaws of Victory

July 21, 2012

[The following is an encore piece that was originally published 13 January 2010]

From an American sports enthusiast’s perspective, if the February 22, 1980 win over the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team is regarded as the greatest moment in sporting history, then the 1972 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XX Olympiad held in Munich, of what was then West Germany, were the worst.

The ’72 Summer Olympics were the second set held in Germany after the ’36 Games in Berlin. A mere twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Second World War, and, the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. was very much alive, which served to make the Games more political than sporting.  In no other event but men’s basketball was this fact evidenced more clearly.

Despite the Munich Massacre that had occurred ten days in, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) had resolved to continue the Games, nonetheless. Entering the tournament with seven consecutive gold medals and a 63-0 Olympic record, the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team had dominated its first eight games, and, was slated to face the Soviets in the final that has since become the most controversial three seconds in Olympic history.

Controversy

At the end of the second half, the U.S. was trailing the Soviets by one point. American guard, Doug Collins had stolen a pass from the Russians at half court and was subsequently knocked down and then rewarded with a couple free throws for the foul. With three seconds remaining on the clock, Collins stepped up to the foul line and sunk both shots making the score USA 50 – USSR 49.

Play had just resumed when the horn sounded signaling what most believed was the end of the game. Instead, bedlam had erupted from the sidelines.  An assistant Russian coach was adamant that he had called a timeout, but whether he had actually signaled for one is a matter of debate.

With one second showing on the clock, the officials attempted to calm everyone down so the game could continue. The announcement from the P.A. was that the clock was being returned to three seconds. Television cameras zooming in on the scoreboard showed the clock frozen at fifty seconds. Play had barely resumed when the horn sounded again and the network announcer concluded that the game was over and that the Americans had won their eighth consecutive gold medal.

Television news camera crews, announcers, photographers and fans had then poured onto the court to congratulate the jubilantly triumphant Team USA, but the celebratory melee was short lived. Referee whistles were blown and FIBA Secretary General, R. William Jones was on court conferring with officials and scorekeepers to tell them that the clock was “unofficial.” Despite having no formal authority to do so, he ordered that the clock be set back to three seconds.

Players were then rushed back out onto the court, and, before play resumed, one of the officials motioned to American player Tom McMillen to back away from the Russian in-bounder, Ivan Edeshko, who was holding the ball. Fearing repercussion from the official, McMillen complied and in doing so, left the court wide open.

Edeshko was then able to whip the ball down the length of the court where it went to Aleksandr Belov who then out-jumped American defenders Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes  and easily scored a layup for the win bringing the score to USA 50 – USSR 51.   The horn sounded for the final time and the announcer then stated again that the game was over while Russian fans crowded onto the court to mob Belov.  Confusion erupted again from the sidelines and Coach Iba was again seen speaking to officials, but the game had been officially called over.

The beleaguered U.S. team immediately filed an appeal with FIBA to contest the game, but this was an appeal where the outcome was a foregone conclusion given the nationality of the participating judges.   FIBA officials took approximately fourteen hours before rendering a decision voting along communist-bloc national lines.   Italy and Puerto Rico voted for the USA, and, Poland, Cuba and Hungary sided with the USSR awarding the Gold Medal to the Soviets.

When Team USA was told  by their manager that they had won the Silver Medal, the team had unanimously decided to refuse to accept, and, instead, both staff and team boarded the first flight home without attending the official awards ceremony.

Aftermath

Thirty-seven years have passed since that September day in Munich, and the Silver Medals that were to be awarded to the 1972 U.S. Men’s Basketball team still lay unclaimed and locked in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland.   Since then, the team receives letters from the Olympic Committee every few years asking to accept their medals, but only two sellouts members of the team have told Sports Illustrated that they would.  Under the terms of the offer, the IOC has specified that in order to receive the medals, the entire team must be in agreement.

The majority of the team has made it known that they will never, under any circumstances accept the medals, and, at least one member, Ken Davis, has set forth in his Will that no member of his family may accept the medal even posthumously.

Tom McMillen has since become a U.S. Congressman and has used his power to appeal to the IOC to revisit its 1972 decision awarding the Silver to the United States.   Basing his appeal on the 2002 Winter Olympics figure skating scandal, he argued that William Jones’s unauthorized intervention brought similar undue pressure upon the officials and scorekeepers of the 1972 game.  The IOC refused to relent and has instead instituted more stringent rules for international competitions in an attempt to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.

Black Canyon Productions had a most excellent documentary that aired on HBO during the summer of 2002 entitled, :03 Seconds from Gold, but unfortunately, the film may be yet another victim of the distribution/copyright wars waged by big company content providers. Sadly, I have not been able to find it either from HBO directly via their DVD website or anywhere else.  The Journal of Sport History, however, published a piece written by Chris Elzey that is the next best thing to the documentary itself.

©2010 Peyton Farquhar™ and Prattle On, Boyo™. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peyton Farquhar™ and Prattle On, Boyo™ with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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