Helium: Will it Continue to Be Affordable As Use Increases?
MRIs produce detailed images of a patient’s body that allow doctors to make accurate diagnoses. These images are generated through the creation of a powerful magnetic field produced by superconducting magnets. A lot of energy is required to produce a large magnetic field, which can only be done through the use of a superconductive magnet. Magnets that are superconductive require that their wires be kept at almost zero degrees to reduce resistance. This is done by keeping the wires submerged in liquid helium.
The problem is that liquid helium is very expensive–and it’s a nonrenewable resource to boot. There are some real concerns throughout the medical and research industries that the price of helium will skyrocket as supply dwindles.
Who Uses Helium?
Besides its use in MRI systems, helium is used throughout several different industries. For the most part, the majority of all helium use is for cryogenic purposes. Liquid helium can reach -452.2 degrees Fahrenheit, which no other substance can do and which makes it the ideal substance for cooling. However, helium is used in other applications as well. The following are a few examples of how helium is used both in cryogenic and non-cryogenic applications:
- NASA – Both oxygen and liquid hydrogen are used by space shuttles as fuel. Helium is used to clean the remaining liquid hydrogen and oxygen out of the fuel tanks. Helium is needed for this purpose because it’s inert, which means it won’t react or combust with any oxygen remaining in the tank.
- Car manufacturers – Helium diffuses quickly, which is why it’s used in airbags to ensure that they deploy as quickly as possible after the point of impact.
- Internet and cable providers – The fastest Internet available to consumers is through the use of fiber optic cables. In order to prevent air bubbles from getting trapped within the cables, fiber optic cables must be manufactured in a pure helium atmosphere.
- Hard drive manufacturers – Older hard drives were filled with air. Newer hard drives are replacing that air with helium due to the fact that it increases the storage capacity by 50 percent and reduces operating power by 23 percent. However, not much helium is needed in the production of helium-filled hard drives — it’s estimated that no more than a single tank of helium gas is needed to manufacture roughly 10,000 hard drives.
- Doctors treating respiratory conditions – Conditions such as asthma and emphysema are often treated using a heliox gas mixture containing 79 percent helium and 21 percent oxygen. Heliox helps by lowering a patient’s overall airflow resistance; in fact, it’s why heliox is commonly used in deep sea diving as well.
- Researchers – Researchers working with particle accelerators depend on helium to cool down their superconducting equipment. A substantial amount of helium is needed to cool a single particle accelerator since such accelerators can reach up to several miles long.
- Welders – Because helium is inert, it is often used as a shielding gas in welding applications.
- New nuclear reactors – The next generation of nuclear reactors are being designed, but there’s a good chance that they will need to use helium as a coolant, considering the extremely high temperatures the reactors will reach.
Why is There a Shortage of Helium?
The demand for liquid helium has increased significantly over the past few decades due to advances in technology and research projects requiring its use. Unfortunately, the supply of helium is limited because it is a nonrenewable resource. What’s surprising is that helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. The problem is that its supply on earth is very limited.
Even though there’s a lot of helium in the air itself (roughly one particle out of every 191,000 particles in the air is helium), it’s so light that it just escapes the atmosphere and floats out into space despite the gravitational pull of the earth. It’s also much too expensive to pull these helium particles from the air for use.
Helium is a byproduct of the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements, namely uranium. In order to create more helium, it must be mined. As such, there is a limited supply of helium currently available, although deposits of helium are found occasionally that help to boost the existing supply. Nevertheless, at some point, the current supply will not be able to meet the growing demand.
Restrictions in The U.S.
The U.S. has roughly 75 percent of the world’s helium supply. Around 40 percent of the world’s helium supply is stored in the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, TX. The reserve is kept in an enormous natural underground reservoir connected to nearby helium refining facilities as well as natural gas fields via pipeline. The U.S. Congress decided to privatize the federal helium program in 1996, requiring that their entire helium supply be sold off by 2015. The goal was to recoup the $1.3 billion that the government spent accumulating it by selling their helium supply at a constant rate.
It was assumed that by the time the federal reserve had sold most of its helium, new sources of helium would become available. What happened was that not nearly as much helium was produced by the private industry as Congress thought, which led to a dwindling supply and the spiking prices. It also caused the market price of helium to be held down and even encouraged waste, according to a National Research Council report released in 2010.
By 2013, Congress realized it needed to change course. It delayed the date by another decade and instead of selling off the federal helium supply at a fixed price, they would auction it off. The idea was to help increase competition and to stabilize the market price. Unfortunately, this law may have done the exact opposite.
How is This Affecting the Cost?
The dwindling supply and the increase in demand also caused the price of helium to go up by a staggering 250 percent in the past decade alone. This has caused a huge impact throughout every industry using helium–but especially the research sector. Many research projects have been shut down because the cost of helium was outside their budgetary constraints. There are even stories of researchers who have forgone their summer salaries so that they could afford to buy helium to continue their experiments.
Additionally, as a result of the Helium Stewardship Act passed in 2013, roughly 10 percent of the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) helium was sold through auction in 2014. Out of the 13 companies that sold refined helium at the time, only four had refineries connected to the federal helium reserve.
This meant that the other nine companies had to work out a deal with one of the four refiners to process it. But because those helium sales went through auction, they went to the highest bidder, which resulted in two of the refiners buying it all, completely shutting out the other nine. Basically, the competition decreased drastically, which contributed to the spike in costs. Once the federal helium reserve shuts down completely, market prices may become even more volatile.
Are There Alternatives?
Not only is the supply of helium going down and the demand going up, but the market looks to become even more volatile in the coming years. There could be a serious problem with the price of helium once the federal helium reserve does finally close down. Processing plants are being built in Russia and the Middle East, where helium reserves exist, to help with the shortage. Researchers are also looking for alternatives to helium–or, at the very least, ways to recycle or limit the waste of the helium that is used. The following are a few alternatives that can be used depending on the application:
- Liquid Nitrogen – For cryogenics applications, there is no real alternative for helium in any application that requires temperatures below -492.8 Fahrenheit, but liquid nitrogen comes close with a boiling point of -320 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Argon – Helium is regularly used in the welding industry as a shield gas, but argon can be effective as well. In fact, it can be even more effective depending on the type of metal used.
- Hydrogen – Although balloons use a minuscule amount of helium, considering the shortage, it’s a bit of a waste. Hydrogen works just as well.
- Hydrogen/Oxygen – Although helium/oxygen mixes are used on deep sea divers to help prevent Nitrogen narcosis symptoms, a hydrogen/oxygen mixture can work just as well.
What Can Be Done About The Helium Shortage?
Even though the helium shortage is a serious issue, there is hope, especially considering the giant leaps that were made within just a few decades in terms of how helium has been used for MRIs. For example, the first commercial MRI systems required that their helium supply be refilled every month. It wasn’t long after that more efficient models were introduced that could last two to three months without needing to be topped off. These days, MRI machines can last two to three years without having to have their helium supply refilled.
Philips Medical has introduced a system that requires only 7 liters of helium, which is significantly less than the 2,500L required of a typical magnet. GE is also working on a “helium free” system, but it is not yet available commercially.
In a best-case scenario, and not-so-distant future, MRI systems may not depend on helium at all!