If you’re in the health care industry,
you’ve probably been aware of the looming helium shortage -- the gas is critical for the operation of MRI machines, among other applications.
Fortunately, the short-term crisis has been averted. On Oct. 2, President Obama signed
the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act into law, which will prevent the premature closing of the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas. At least for now, the global helium shortage likely won’t be made worse in the short term.
The reserve — ten billion cubic feet of gas stored in massive airtight caverns spanning Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma — now supplies 40 percent of U.S. domestic and 30 percent of global demand.
However, this doesn’t solve the helium shortage in the long term. Because the demand for helium is rapidly outpacing supply, experts agree that helium rationing will be the new normal going forward, with or without the shutdown.
How did we get into this mess in the first place? Its origins trace back nearly a century ago to World War I, when the United States started stockpiling helium to compete with Germany’s inflatable aircraft.
During the Space Race, when helium became an important source of coolant to create rocket fuel, the U.S. paid natural gas producers to extract helium — a byproduct of natural gas — and re-inject it into the Federal Helium Reserve, just outside Amarillo, Texas.
However, these efforts came with a hefty price tag, putting the government $1.4 billion in debt.
Fast forward a few decades to 1996, when a budget-conscious Congress decided that this debt needed to be paid off. It passed the Helium Privatization Act, which forced the government to sell off its helium reserves until the debt erased. Upon settlement of the debt, the plan was that the government would then bow out of the helium business, leaving the private sector to pick up where the government left off.
But the U.S. government’s mandatory sell-off has had a detrimental effect on the market. Because it was selling helium at artificially low prices, private companies didn’t have much incentive to extract and sell helium to compete with the government or look into recycling technologies.
And what lawmakers didn’t foresee was that this cheap supply of helium coincided with a surge in demand brought on by a rapid expansion in the semiconductor industry — which makes components responsible for modern electronic devices — as well as more widespread adoption of then-novel medical technologies such as MRI.
As a result, the private sector hasn’t yet caught up with this demand, meaning helium will continue to be in short supply for the foreseeable future.
After the market price for helium had quadrupled over the past decade and global demand continued to grow at 3 percent per year, it all came to a head around 2006, when the market paradigm shifted from high-priced helium to outright rationing. Heavy consumers of helium such as U.S. national labs were forced to do without the gas for non-essential experiments.
In the works
To be sure, the private sector has been working on ramping up helium production to meet demand, but many helium suppliers are located in unstable areas of the world that have strained relationships with the U.S., such as Algeria, Qatar and Russia. Meanwhile, another reserve has the disadvantage of being located in Australia and is thus a more costly source when transport is factored in.
In the absence of better alternatives, however, these sources will become more and more crucial for the world’s supply. The only problem is that it takes time for these newer plants to be brought up to speed.
“Linde and other helium suppliers are heavily engaged in developing these new sources to ensure that there are adequate supplies of helium for many decades into the future,” says Nick Haines, head of Helium Source Development at Linde, one of the largest suppliers of helium in the world.
Seeking to head off a sudden spike in helium price, the House quickly passed a bill in April that would avoid the shutdown of the U.S. helium reserve and leave it open to non-government users. And in June, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources followed suit with a bill of its own.
It’s widely known that Congress, wracked by partisan divide, is on track to have one of its least productive years in six decades. It has passed fewer than 16 laws this year, while facing critical deadlines for budget bills and the nation’s debt ceiling this fall.
Given all the other political distractions afoot, health care professionals were justifiably worried that a bill to keep the Federal Reserve afloat for the short-term.
However, Washington came through this time: President Obama signed the bill in early October only days before the shutdown was scheduled to take effect.
That law will give the US several more years to sell off the gas stored in the reserve, avoiding an abrupt shock to the market. But it will still be several years before other countries are able to get production up to speed to fill the gap left by the United States.
In recent years, MRI manufacturers have responded to the helium shortage by developing zero boil-off magnet technology. At present, however, zero boil-off systems still require up to 2,000 liters of liquid helium .
Companies are now also looking into recycling and capturing wasted helium. In May this year, GE Healthcare broke ground on a new $17 million 5,000-square-foot helium liquefaction facility right next to GE’s MRI production plant in Florence, South Carolina. The facility will use proprietary techniques to capture waste helium from its MRI plant and liquefy the gas for future use.
And in August, London-based firm Cryogenic claimed that it has developed a way to cool MRI magnets without the need for liquid helium. Its technique replaces liquid helium with a mechanical refrigeration unit that directly reduces the magnet’s temperature to near absolute zero in a closed, self-contained circuit that contains approximately half a liquid liter of helium gas, which remains cold, but doesn’t condense into liquid.
“In recent years major research laboratories have had to temporarily shut down multimillion-pound facilities because of these [helium] shortages and the problem will only get worse. Providing an alternative which doesn’t rely on a regular supply of helium is essential to addressing this problem,” said managing director of Cryogenic, Jeremy Good, in a statement.
The technique is already being used for smaller research instruments, but the incentive to develop a low-helium MRI scanner has never been higher. “Perhaps this type of technology will be the future for whole body MRI,” says Tom Freund, director of MRI service at Oxford Instruments.
Additionally, a brand new technology seeks to go a step further and eliminate MRI’s reliance on helium for good, if it proves to be viable. Time Medical, a Shanghai-based MRI company, is working on making superconducting coils that rely on higher-temperature liquid nitrogen — an inexpensive alternative that can be manufactured. Last year, the University of San Diego installed a liquid nitrogen system in its 1.5-Tesla machines to test out its efficacy.
As these helium-frugal technologies advance, the global health care market may eventually wean itself off helium. But the technologies will take time to become commercially available and widely adopted by the health care market, much of which still uses non-zero-boil off MRI machines.
Names in boldface are Premium Listings.
Wayne Scott, Independent Magnet Technology
Brian Kibbe, Haskris
Jeff Kirk, Majestic Medical Solution
Brian Bruhschwein, Imaging Solutions
Ron Schultz, Cool Pair Plus
Kim Bernard, Dimplex Thermal Solutions
Jeremy Fox, Direct Medical Imaging
Thomas Freund, Oxford Instruments inc. Superconducting
Marc Fessler, Independence Cryogenic Engineering
Ted Huss, Medical Imaging Resources
Michaelle Serrano, Oxford Instruments Service, LLC
Wes Solmos, Creative Foam Medical Systems
Paul Zahn, Shared Medical Services, Inc.
Michael Profeta, Magnetic Resonance Technologies
Arvinder Bharaj, Eco Tech