Research, businesses affected by helium shortage

May 23, 2019 08:05 PM

The global helium shortage could cause big trouble for medical and research centers.

Almost 30 percent of the world's helium is used for MRI scans. About eight percent is used for balloons. Because helium a finite resource, many are wondering what will happen when supply runs out. 

"It is becoming a problem," florist Brenda Lennon said.

Lennon said she had a hard time finding a helium supplier recently, but after calling about a dozen different places, she found someone.

"I got very lucky and I was only without it for a couple of days, very, very lucky, but I know people who have been without it for months," Lennon said.

Lennon said about half of her delivery orders include requests for balloons. She said recently prices have climbed about 30 percent. She said for now, she can still swing it.

"The problem is the people are only willing to spend so much money on a balloon and they don't realize that the cost of the gas really is the most expensive part," Lennon said.

It's only going to get pricier, or so says Professor Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science at RPI. He said prices could double, triple or even quadruple because of the shortage.

Breneman said a similar issue came up several years ago.

"There was a big shortage and we all had to pull together in the Capital Region and in other areas to make sure, for example, instruments can continue functioning," Breneman said.

Instruments like a 800 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMRI) spectrometer, which needs to be filled with 250 liters of helium every five weeks.

"Once you've energized a magnet and it has liquid helium keeping it cold, you have to keep it cold in order to contain that energy," said Breneman. "If you allow a magnet to run dry of liquid helium, the magnet can self-destruct."

Breneman said they're also looking at alternative equipment.

"We've actually started to think about minimizing the number of machines that actually use liquid helium and try to use alternative technologies, but for the highest field NMRIs, that is impossible at this point," Breneman said.

Beneman said RPI is also looking into a helium recovery system that would allow them to capture the helium that has boiled off of the magnets, re-purify and liquefy it for future use -- essentially recycling it. It's expensive, but in the grand scheme it may actually save money.


Emily Burkhard

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