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Helium Vanishing; MRI Affected?

July 5, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Practice Management
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The world could run out of helium in three decades, says a Nobel Prize–winning physicist. Why should radiologists care? Because MRI machine cooling systems account for more than a quarter of annual helium use.

Robert C. Richardson, PhD, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics, sounded the alarm at the 60th annual Nobel Laureate Lectures in Lindau, Germany. Helium is the second-lightest and second-most-abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, but it’s relatively rare on Earth, making up only about 5 parts per million of Earth’s atmosphere. It continually escapes the atmosphere even as natural processes form new helium.

Said Dr. Richardson in his lecture:

Once it is released into the atmosphere, say, in the form of party balloons, it is lost to the Earth forever.

According to a Scientific American report on the lecture, the United States holds most of the world’s helium stocks in underground salt domes. A 1996 federal law mandates the sale of all U.S. stocks by 2015 to compensate the government for its investment in the helium and its storage.

A 2000 National Research Council study predicted a long-term helium surplus. However, since then, helium usage in industry and medicine has gone way up.

Dr. Richardson said that in 2007, the most recent year for which helium-usage figures are available, 28 percent went to cryogenics for MRI and nuclear magnetic resonance machines, 26 percent for pressurizing and purging rockets, 20 percent for welding, and 13 percent for providing inert atmospheres for the production of fiber optics, liquid crystal displays, and food.

The scientist makes several recommendations for staving off shortages, including raising helium prices by a factor of 20. For cryogenic uses, he suggests recycling the gas in closed systems—which is already done by MRI machines in cooling their superconducting magnets.

One suspects that governmental and industrial users will make sure we don’t dissipate our entire supply of such an important element. Still, it’s a good guess that prices will rise. And, just in case, it might be a good idea to skip the helium balloons at the next birthday party.

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