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Why Should Radiologists Worry About Helium?

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Should radiologists worry that worldwide stocks of helium, the second-most-abundant element in the universe, are being depleted?

Yes, says Rakesh A. Shah, MD, in an opinion piece in the current issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. Dr. Shah, a radiologist at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York, worries that the United States will run out of helium in a relatively few years.

That would be a problem for radiology. About one fourth of the U.S. helium supply goes toward health-care uses, particularly cooling MRI magnets and generating radioactive isotopes for nuclear medicine.

But if it’s so abundant, what’s the big deal? Well, as common as it may be across the galaxies, its supply on earth is limited. More than one third of the world’s stock, and nearly half the U.S. supply, comes from the Federal Helium Reserve, a series of underground wells in Texas where helium has accumulated as a result of millions of years of radioactive decay.

And we’re deliberately emptying that reserve. A budget-conscious 1996 federal law mandated that the most of the reserve’s helium be sold by 2015. A fascinating article by Anna M. Tinsley earlier this month in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram says that the sales are a little behind schedule but probably will be completed by 2020.

And then what? Most helium is found in natural-gas wells. Only a few contain significant amounts of helium. So far, we can’t manufacture it.

What’s more, we don’t recycle most helium. Whether it escapes from children’s party balloons or old MRI machines, most of the helium that gets into the atmosphere dissipates into space.

So will we soon lose the ability to supercool MRI magnets? Robert Richardson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who studies helium, has told the Star-Telegram:

The Earth is 4.7 billion years old, and it has taken that long to accumulate our helium reserves, which we will dissipate in about 100 years.

It would seem smart for us at least to pay more attention to recycling and conserving. As a bonus, it might spare little kids the trauma of watching their party balloons float away up into the sky.

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One Response to “Why Should Radiologists Worry About Helium?”

  1. Radiology Daily»AlertArchive » MRI Technology May Help Generate Electricity on September 1st, 2011 at 10:02 am

    […] Of course, there are technical hurdles, which the U.S. Department of Energy is giving GE Global Research $3 million over two years to overcome. In order to be superconducting, magnets have to be supercooled. At least at present, that requires the use of liquid helium for cooling. Helium is also becoming scarce. […]