The Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance (MITA) is urging federal lawmakers to keep the federal helium reserve operational to prevent a major shortage early next year. The group has been closely monitoring national helium supply levels since demand for the natural gas began exceeding U.S. government expectations in 2010.
Airborne balloons are not the only use helium sees: The element is crucial to the proper operation of medical imaging equipment. For instance, for a medical resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to work, the internal magnet needs to remain at a temperature of 452 degrees below zero. Helium is the only element that can remain at a sufficiently cold temperature to allow for the stable and uniform magnetic field the MRI scanners need to work. Helium also is critical in cryogenics, the study of materials under severely depressed temperatures.
MITA has written a letter to Congress urging policy makers to keep the federal helium reserve operational. The York Daily Record (YDR) (the helium shortage has just begun to affect York County, Pa.) claims the U.S. government has taken some risks when it comes to helium storage. The federal government began buying helium from natural gas miners in 1960, recognizing its value as a resource. By the mid-1970s, helium stores exceeded demand, so the purchasing program was ended. Helium prices were set at a minimum needed to pay off the Federal Helium Program’s $1.3 billion debt, which kept helium prices artificially low. In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended the bureau start raising prices to reflect actual market value. However, current demand has exceeded the government’s expectations, according to the NAS, and a significant amount of the helium is being sold outside the United States.
Rockets for space exploration, the production of silicon wafers for electronics and gas-cooled nuclear reactors all depend on helium, Moses Chan told the YDR. These fields are expanding globally and most industry expectations did not accommodate for the increase, he said. Chan is a professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, and a co-author of the NAS report.
The letter submitted by MITA warns that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will be forced to shut down the reserve as early as April 2013—taking 30 percent of the world helium supply off the market—if Congress fails to act.
“Patients and an important manufacturing industry are facing a crisis due to helium shortages,” said Gail Rodriguez, executive director of MITA. “Ensuring reliable access to helium is critical in safeguarding patient access to life-saving medical imaging technologies and to the health of the U.S. economy.”
Medical imaging equipment, including MRI machines, is critical to the diagnosis of strokes, aneurysms, cancers, multiple sclerosis and other deadly and debilitating diseases. Because liquid helium is the only element that can feasibly cool MRI magnets to temperatures suitable for imaging, MRIs in hospitals must regularly be replenished with helium to maintain normal operating temperatures.
“Failure to preserve our domestic helium supply will have reverberating effects for the U.S. medical imaging sector and the entire health care industry,” said Rodriguez. “MRI manufacturing facilities will have no choice but to slow or shut down production, hospitals and physicians will have to turn away patients due to the insufficient helium supply, and, ultimately, patients will simply not have access to the care they need.”
In its letter, the MITA encourages Congress to finalize a solution to the potential helium crisis in the next few weeks. So far, lawmakers have discussed the issue in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, and have introduced the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, which aims to preserve the Federal Helium Reserve, a natural geologic gas storage formation about 15 miles north of Amarillo, Texas. The field supplies 42 percent of the nation’s and 35 percent of the world’s helium, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The reserve provides 6 million cubic feet of helium a day and has been operating at full capacity for a year, said Samuel Burton, an assistant field manager for helium operations at the Bureau of Land Management. At that rate, the reserve would run out of helium by 2018. But under the proposed Stewardship Act, Burton said the reserve would continue to produce helium until 2029.
Image courtesy of clusterballoon.org.