Our Helium Is Running Out
Liquid helium, the world’s coldest element, is needed to operate the magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. The high-resolution, 3-D images generated by this critical medical tool allow doctors to see details in the body that might not show up on X-rays, so that they can diagnose brain tumors, strokes, spinal cord injuries, liver disease and cancer.
Helium is a nonrenewable element found deep underground, and supplies are becoming harder to find for the Federal Helium Reserve, in Texas. Russia was gearing up to supply nearly a third of the world’s reservoir, but the war in Ukraine has halted trade. Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, says that four of five major U.S. helium suppliers are rationing the element, prioritizing the healthcare industry over less essential customers. Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier, Inc., which contracts with helium suppliers for about 4,000 hospitals, says, “Helium is on allocation, for sure.”
Inside an MRI magnet, helium lets the current travel resistance-free. Harvard University physicists Amir Yacoby and Philip Kim shut down about half of their projects. Kim says, “There’s only a finite amount of helium in the Earth’s crust. Once it evaporates off, it’s completely lost into outer space.”