Bipartisan bills introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate aim to avert the imminent shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve, which provides a third of all the gas consumed worldwide, and develop a proper market to avoid a long-term crunch in supplies of one of the world’s most obscure but vital raw materials.
Helium is best known for filling party balloons and making people talk funny. But its properties as the second-lightest element, chemically unreactive, and with a boiling point just 4 degrees above absolute zero, make it essential for a wide range of cutting edge scientific applications.
The biggest uses of helium are too cool the superconducting magnets used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, help manufacture semiconductors and fiber optic cables, and purge and pressurize the liquid hydrogen/oxygen propulsion systems on space rockets, including the giant Delta IV launch vehicles that put spy satellites into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Prices for refined helium sold to end-users have quadruped from $40 per thousand cubic feet in 2000 to $160 in 2012, according to the Government Accountability Office, which warned the Natural Resources Committee of the House of Representatives of “urgent issues facing the Bureau of Land Management’s storage and sale of helium reserves” at a hearing on February 14.
Prices and availability have fluctuated wildly in the last five years. Problems at helium refineries in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as start up delays with new refining facilities in Qatar in 2006, led to shortages and rationing, as well as price spikes for some customers.