Helium Shortage has Some Industries Feeling the Pinch

If you’re heading out to get your loved one some Valentine’s balloons, you may run into an issue of how to blow them up. There’s a national helium shortage, and it could be the next natural element to become extinct. Brian Bruhschwein – Director of Service, Imaging Solutions: “We were down to like 50 percent allocations for liquid helium.” Brian Bruhschwein, who works on MRI machines in Fargo, says the lack of helium availability, and the subsequent spike in helium prices, is making big waves in the industry. Brian Bruhschwein: “I would say in the last 4-5 years the price has quadrupled for what we pay per liter.” Bruhschwein says he is paying roughly $14 per liter. Those liters of helium help cool huge magnets inside an MRI machine. One machine can hold over 1,600 liters and cost of $22,000 to fill. If the companies servicing these machines can’t get the helium. Brian Bruhschwein: “The helium gets to low and the wire becomes exposed. It will generate heat and boil off helium and be catastrophic.” The demand for this natural element is growing, and experts say there is only about 20 years’ worth left in the U.S. Therefore, the prices have skyrocketed. Brian Bruhschwein: “The Bureau of Land Management controls it and they basically bid out contracts to these companies. And the highest bidder gets it and pass on the cost to us.” …leaving MRI companies looking for cost saving solutions like creating magnets that can be cooled with liquid nitrogen to combat a rising problem. Brian Bruschwein: “Liquid Nitrogen is pennies per liter compared to helium. It’s in the atmosphere so its easy to come by. The helium shortage is not going to go away. It’s gotten worse every year”. The chemistry department at NDSU says it is also suffering from the shortage. The cost of helium alone is close to half of the department lab’s operating cost.

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