Got Helium?

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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