Updates; October 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Philip Yam; 1 Page(s)
Helium prices have doubled in the past five years. The high demand is not exactly coming from people with party balloons to fill. Rather helium cools the superconducting coils of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices, and the sale of those machines has grown tremendously, driving the demand for helium up by 25 percent since 2003. In contrast, helium production has increased by only about half as much.
In 2006 the U.S. sold 23,000 metric tons of helium, which filled 71 percent of the world's helium needs (Algeria and Russia supplied most of the rest). At least one third of the U.S.'s contribution came from the federal helium reserve. Started in 1961, when helium was considered to be a crucial military and technological resource, the stockpile had grown by 1996 to 170,000 metric tons, stored mostly in porous rock beds in the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Tex. As part of an effort to privatize government programs, a 1996 act mandated the sale of all but 2,900 tons by 2015. As a result, according to a 2000 National Academy of Sciences report, the total U.S. helium resources will disappear by 2035--probably sooner, because of rising demand. "If within the next five years, new sources of helium are not brought to market, there will be a helium shortage" if demand continues to grow at current rates, says Joseph Peterson of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages the reserve. Recycling of this rare and nonrenewable resource may need to improve greatly to prevent shortfalls.