E-news from the
International Society for Magnetic Resonance
in Medicine

Vol. 2, Issue 2, Oct 2013

Helium Crisis Averted (at least for now!)

Many members of ISMRM will already be aware of another recent congressional crisis that had the potential to affect our field adversely. But for those who did not follow the story, here is a short summary:

Despite helium being the second most abundant element in the universe, it is a valuable commodity here on earth. It is extracted as a by-product of natural gas production, and of course has found use in NMR and MRI because of its low boiling temperature, making it ideal for use in cooling superconducting wire contained in magnets.

In the 1920s the US Government created a reserve of helium in Amarillo, Texas, anticipating its strategic importance in the new fashion of airship travel. However, that use never took off (so to speak!) and by the 1990s Congress was concerned that the debt accumulated by creating and storing this helium should be paid off.

In 1996 it was decided that the Federal Helium Reserve should be sold off until such time as the debts incurred had been paid off.

Earlier in 2013 the costs of the facility were paid off, and so under the original legislation the facility was obliged to cease providing helium to commercial sources on October 7th this year. Since the Government source of helium represents about 30% of the world’s supply at present (and over 40% of the US domestic supply), and since there are at present various difficulties at other major suppliers around the world (Algeria, Qatar, Russia), there would have been a significant impact of the US Government stopping the supply of their reserves in Texas if the law had not been amended.

The US House of Representatives and the US Senate both tabled bills that sought to continue the supply, however the legislators did not initially agree on how future funds generated from the Government reserves should be used. The situation was increasingly becoming critical, since the Bureau of Land Management would have needed to start the shutdown procedures on October 1st 2013 unless new legislation was passed.

The ISMRM Board, along with many other scientific societies, universities and businesses that rely on helium (notably sectors in semiconductor production and of course healthcare) sent letters to House and Senate leaders to encourage them to pass legislation to head off the helium crisis (which would have affected the US first, but which would have had global consequences soon after).

Fortunately, in a demonstration of good sense not being seen in other aspects of US governance at present, the House of Representatives passed by 367 to 0 an amended bill on Sept 26th, which was then sent to the Senate. They duly passed it later that day by “unanimous consent” and the bill was then sent to President Obama for signature into law. The new ‘Helium Stewardship’ law extends the time horizon for the Bureau of Land Management’s commercial sale of helium, aiming for a complete withdrawal of the US government’s commercial sale of helium by September 2021. This gives us a further 8 years to wean ourselves off stockpiled helium, and to ready ourselves for reliance on only what can be extracted. This means that helium efficiencies must be found in our scanners, and that the price of helium will likely rise over the next few years to recognize the true availability of this valuable commodity.

So don’t use too many helium balloons in celebrating this stay of execution.