It’s a little-known fact that MRI’s, one of the most widespread and useful medical diagnostic tools, relies on helium. Now that there is a global helium shortage doctors are worried about the ability to continue to provide them as needed.
The lighter-than-air element that gives balloons their buoyancy also powers the MRI machine. It can’t function without some 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium keeping its magnets cool enough to work. But helium — a nonrenewable element found deep within the Earth’s crust — is running low, leaving hospitals wondering how to plan for a future with a much scarcer supply.
“Helium has become a big concern,” said Mahadevappa Mahesh, professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Baltimore. “Especially now with the geopolitical situation.”
The shortage is new, but helium has been an unpredictable commodity for years. This is especially true in the U.S., where a Texas-based federal helium reserve is dwindling as the government tries transferring ownership to private markets.
Until this year, the U.S. was counting on Russia to ease the tight supply. An enormous new facility in eastern Russia was supposed to supply nearly one-third of the world’s helium, but a fire last January derailed the timeline. Although the facility could resume operations any day, the war in Ukraine has, for the most part, stopped trade between the two countries.
Now, four of five major U.S. helium suppliers are rationing the element, said Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting. These suppliers are prioritizing the health care industry by reducing helium allotments to less essential customers in the hope that the shortage will not have a negative impact on the medical diagnostic sector.
“Helium is on allocation for sure,” said Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier Health who contracts with helium suppliers for some 4,000 hospitals. “We’re probably not blowing up balloons in the gift shop anymore.”