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We’ll all be worse off when the helium balloon pops

Many of us love helium balloons but we need to find and conserve more for use in MRI scanners. PA/Matthew Fearn

Helium is God’s gift to humankind. It’s particularly fantastic for science and medicine and has allowed us to make an enormous number of fundamental advances. We use it for a whole vast array of things, from superconducting magnets to welding and rocketry. To me, helium is more valuable than gold.

One of helium’s primary uses in medical science is to cool Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, which can produce complementary detailed images to X-rays. Without MRI’s we wouldn’t have made advances in how we treat brain tumours. Recent advances in this technique have led to functional MRI, or fMRI, which can measure brain activity by looking at changes in bloodflow.

Other techniques such as MagnetoEncephaloGraphy (MEG), which accurately maps the ultra-small magnetic fields inside the human brain, are also emerging and have provided additional insight into how our brains work.

And all these techniques use liquid helium. To work, MRIs need to generate intense magnetic fields and the superconducting coil used to do this must be cooled down. Only liquid helium can bring the temperature down to -269°C (or 4 Kelvin), which is four degrees above absolute zero – the lowest possible temperature.

MEG also has to be cooled to the same temperature. All other substitutes to helium solidify at this temperature, while helium remains liquid.

Recently it has become all too apparent that our source of helium is finite and we have been lulled into a false sense of security.

In the early 20th century, large reserves of helium were found in natural gas fields in the US. And since the 1920s, the US has stockpiled helium for commercial and military uses. It is mostly stored at the Federal Helium Reserve run by the Bureau of Land Management in Amarillio, Texas.

However, building the Federal Helium Reserve came at a cost and in 1996 the US passed the Helium Reserve Act and started selling off its helium to pay off the debt from building the storage facility. The US is still by far the biggest supplier of helium and produces about a third of the world’s supply. To sell off the supply, the US set the price cheap and demand soared.

The increasing use of helium from emerging economies, for example in China and India, combined with maintenance delays in four other major manufacturing sites around the world, which reduced their output, created a perfect storm last year that has given all of us who use helium a wake-up call that it isn’t an infinite resource.

There is a day, in the not too distant future, when there will be no helium left and in many, many cases it is simply impossible to use any alternative.

To date, we have been utterly reckless in our use of helium; there has been no concerted attempt to reduce our usage.

Helium is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. But because it is so volatile, which is why it floats so well in balloons, it can actually reach escape velocity. Eventually it seeps out of our atmosphere into space - which is why it is also slowly depleting naturally over time.

This shortage has stimulated MRI manufacturers to make great efforts to minimise the use of helium in scanners by using refrigeration units in MRI scanners. Though this reduces helium loss, it still evaporates - albeit at a much slower rate. This is an excellent step towards minimising helium usage, but it is only a stop-gap measure.

In the long term, only alternative technologies will save us, such as superconductors that can operate at higher temperatures that mean we can use liquid nitrogen to cool them instead. However, these systems have been promised for many years and there is still a long way to go before these are viable in MRI scanners.

An international strategy for helium exploitation and conservation needs to be implemented now. It should be mandated that all helium be collected when oil and gas exploration is undertaken. Its recovery from oil and gas fields, as well its transport, needs to be very carefully monitored and regulated, to ensure that the maximum amount is conserved.

All users, including medical establishments and universities, must consider investment in conservation and recycling of helium. This will require capital investment and will be expensive. But the money must be found to conserve and recycle this incredibly valuable resource.

This needs to happen now, not in five, ten or 50 years when it is really too late to do anything about it.

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