Nation’s Helium Supply, Which Fuels MRIs, is Deflating

The Federal Helium Reserve, which supplies about 40 percent of the world’s helium supply, has been for sale for over a year — and the future of the element that MRIs require is unknown, NBC News reported Feb. 7. The pipeline structure stretches nearly 500 miles from Texas to Kansas and was supposed to be sold by 2021, “but for the past year, it’s been silent,” Sophia Hayes, PhD, a chemistry professor at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the nation’s leading helium experts, told NBC News. MRI machines need about 2,000 liters of helium to operate, and that balloon of supply is deflating as the nonrenewable element nears a global shortage. It’s the coldest element on earth and keeps the magnetic fields in MRIs — which detect cancer, spinal cord injuries and liver diseases — cold enough to operate. There’s no alternative element. A U.S. Geological Survey was posted Jan. 30 asking for comments on the current helium supply risk. The notice may look unassuming, but it means the U.S. is shifting more attention to the burgeoning problem, according to NBC News. Helium is also used by NASA and SpaceX for liquid fuel rockets, the pharmaceutical industry and the Defense Department, Bill Halperin, PhD, a physics professor at Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University, told the outlet. Amid geopolitical tensions, the U.S. has the most reliable supply of helium in the world. But, as the Federal Helium Reserve’s sale waits in the water, the stock could deplete faster than the 100- to 200-year benchmark scientists have given helium based on the current consumption rate.

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