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Helium, essential for MRI, might suddenly get more scarce and more expensive in October. Fortunately, Congress can come to the rescue.

In other words, we’re doomed.

All snark aside, action in the U.S. Congress to head off the helium shortage seems to have mysteriously stalled, as detailed last week by Washington Post blogger Lydia DePillis. The Federal Helium Reserve is scheduled to shut down in October—a situation we’ve covered previously herehere, and here. That would cut off helium production equal to 40 percent of U.S. consumption.

In April, the U.S. House voted 394–1 to approve a bill to keep the reserve operating. In June, a Senate committee approved a similar bill. Since then, Congress has done what it has been doing about most issues lately: nothing.

So the Bureau of Land Management office in Amarillo, Texas, that administers the reserve and sells enriched crude helium to private refiners is expecting the worst. BLM spokeswoman Donna Hummel said:

We are contingency planning for a shutdown of the Amarillo facility. We will be providing notices to employees of Amarillo, private refiners, and storage contract holders—companies that store their helium in our reservoir. If we shut this down, you can imagine some consequences there.

The party balloon business is already taking a hit, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last month. More critically, helium is used in, among other things, scientific research and the manufacturing of fiber optics, chemicals, and semiconductors. And, of course, it’s what keeps MRI magnets cooled to superconducting temperatures.

No member of Congress seems to have publicly discussed why the bills have stalled, although you can check the comments section of the Washington Post blog for the inevitable conspiracy theory. If nothing happens, according to the chairman of the Semiconductor Industry Association:

Manufacturers could be forced to consider expensive and complex stopgaps to maintain production without helium, researchers could be forced to scrap valuable research-and-development projects, consumers could face higher prices for a range of technology products, and patients could be forced to forgo a needed diagnosis from an MRI machine.

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One Response to “Helium Shortage Looms; Congress Dithers”

  1. Radiology Daily»AlertArchive » 97-2 Senate Vote Hasn’t Solved Helium Crisis on September 23rd, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    […] reported on this issue several times, most recently last month. The government created the helium reserve back in 1925, when the gas was needed mostly for […]