Life without helium


Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | September 29, 2011
From the September 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

The Earth is rapidly depleting its easily gotten stocks of the universe's second-most abundant element, and radiologists should take notice.

The gas, used for super-cooling superconducting MRI magnets, among other applications, is formed during a billion-year process of radioactive decay, and can't be artificially manufactured. The United States owns the world's largest helium reserves, mostly trapped in a series of north Texas wells. This cache is thought to supply about one-third of the globe's helium needs. But we're running out -- and partly by design.

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"This stuff is literally going up in the air," Dr. Rakesh A. Shah, a radiologist with Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., told DOTmed News.

Shah recently penned an opinion article on the topic for the Journal of the American College of Radiology, urging his colleagues to recognize a real, if obscure, threat to their discipline.

In 1996, a budget-panicky Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, which forces the government to sell off its helium reserves by 2015 to pay back the costs of investing in the system, a process that began in the 1920s.

The Federal Helium Reserve in Texas is running a bit behind schedule, but still should exhaust its helium stocks by 2020, possibly forcing the United States to become a net importer of the inert gas as early as 2025.

Experts argue the reason for helium's speedy depletion is that, in large part because of the U.S. government's mandatory sell-off, the price of the gas is kept artificially low. A 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which pointed out that helium was too cheaply priced, warned about the risks of losing the U.S. reserves, and called for extending the depletion deadline, investing in cheaper ways to recycle the gas and working out a market-driven price.

"The harsh truth of the matter is, the only way to make this last longer is to raise the price," Shah said.

In an interview with the Telegraph last year, Robert Richardson, the chair of the committee and a Nobel prize winner, said if the price of helium captured its true value, the cost of helium balloons, for instance, should be roughly 64 pounds -- or north of $100 -- a piece.

Off the radar
Although helium is used to run high-speed particle accelerators and in industrial leak testing, about a quarter of the country's helium supplies go toward health care, both for keeping MRI magnets cold and generating radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine, Shah said.

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