MRI industry keeps hope afloat for helium supply
Deep breath, vocal chords chemically tightened. Here come the puns. Rising helium prices have more than balloon enthusiasts feeling deflated.
Congress is working to pump up the supply of helium amid a global shortage. The Balloon Council is keeping its lobbying plans afloat (it’s official; everyone has a lobbyist), but so is the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance. Magnetic resonance imaging relies on regularly replenished helium to keep the MR magnets extremely cold—more than 440 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Since 1925, the worldwide supply of helium has been boosted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. For decades, the government bought helium stripped from natural gas and pumped it into a reserve under Amarillo, Texas. That party is about to end. A 1996 law called for the feds to close the reserve after selling off most of its contents at prices just high enough to recoup $1.3 billion in debt, a threshold likely to come in October.
Private industry, though, hasn’t filled the void. The House passed a bill in April that would keep the reserve open at status quo prices for another year and then set up marketbased pricing to keep the gas flowing until it’s down to 3 billion cubic feet (the reserve produced 2.1 billion cubic feet in 2012—U.S. consumption was 4 billion cubic feet). The Senate is considering the plan. But why count on those gasbags?
GE Healthcare is spending $17 million to build a facility in Florence, S.C., that would capture and recycle much of the helium used in the production of its MRI equipment. Workers broke ground last week on the project next to its plant, which the company hailed as a “magnet” (groan) for jobs and investment.
The helium crisis threatens more than just the fate of giant SpongeBob SquarePants balloons.