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MRI Machines Worldwide Could Shut Down from Helium Shortage

Qmed Staff

September 12, 2013

1 Min Read
MRI Machines Worldwide Could Shut Down from Helium Shortage

Helium plays a critical role in welding, wafer manufacturing and MRI machines. While helium is one of the most abundant elements in the known universe, available reserves on earth are running low.

This noble gas has several favorable properties that it make valuable to the high-tech industry. Since helium is inert and has very high boiling and melting points (both close to absolute zero), this gas can be used for silicon wafer manufacturing, arc welding, high-energy accelerators and cryogenics. If helium prices rise significantly in response to the latest shortage, healthcare facilities may have to replace MRI magnets with systems that use alternatives.

As of now, there are two companies that dominate the U.S. helium market. In total, a Wyoming facility owned by Exxon provides one-fifth of the global supply. Another facility, based in Amarillo, Texas, provides approximately one-third of the world's helium. However, this helium supply is administered through the Federal Helium Program run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The Federal Helium Program is facing significant budget shortfalls. If Congress doesn't provide funding for the Federal Helium Program by October 7th, the federal agency will no longer be able to provide helium.

Praxair, a large helium supplier in the United States, sent the following letter to its customers in late August:

"The BLM has notified Praxair of its preliminary contingency plans in the event funding expires by Oct. 7. According to the BLM, this will necessarily involve shutting down the CHEU (crude helium enrichment unit) and production wells as early as September 15, 2013, followed by a drawdown of the BLM pipeline."

While there are viable alternatives to helium, a shortage of this gas could have dire consequences for MRI manufacturers and healthcare facilities that use MRIs.

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