MRI in­dus­try keeps hope afloat for he­lium sup­ply

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS -

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.

GETTY IM­AGES

The he­lium cri­sis threat­ens more than just the fate of gi­ant Sponge­Bob SquarePants bal­loons.

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