Without quick action by Congress to continue and amend the existing Helium Act (50 U.S.C. §167), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has indicated it will be forced to stop selling helium from the U.S. reserve, a major domestic source of this gas. In order to cease trading by October 7, 2013, BLM will need to empty the pipeline, close compressors, and implement other “shutdown” procedures commencing September 15, 2013. Although refiners may be able to extend that date to September 20 or 25, because of a coincidental interruption from a major commercial helium supplier, any September shutdown by BLM will have a dramatic and dire effect on the U.S. supply.
The consequences would be severe on the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) market, and by extension there will be consequences for healthcare providers. Maximum global manufacturing capacity of helium is estimated at 240 million liters per year (20 million liters/month). The manufacturers of MRIs are estimated to purchase approximately 36 million liters of helium per year (3 million liters/month).
Current production problems have restricted output to roughly 175 million liters per year (14.5 million per month), or approximately 70% of manufacturing capacity. Because some industries have been able to substitute other gases or have found better ways to use the gas (e.g., gas chromatography switches to hydrogen and welding to argon), industrial consumers have been able to cope with global production at 70% of capacity.
Healthcare providers, including hospitals, will likely be impacted by the further constriction in supply. Of the estimated 36 million liters per year of helium purchased by MRI manufacturers under current conditions, it is estimated that at least 15–16 million liters per year of those purchases is used to service MRI scanners in hospitals. If BLM stops production in September and there is a major reduction of global capacity under the scenario outlined above, less helium will be available for all purposes, including MRI maintenance. In the worst case scenario, it is likely that hospitals would have to reduce or cease providing MRI scanning services temporarily.
If an MRI scanner is shut off due to a lack of helium, “warming it up” when helium supply becomes available again is not as simple as filling it up, flicking the switch, and resuming operation. It is a very complex start-up process. There is a risk that hospital MRIs may be offline for a long period of time, requiring months for health providers to catch up with the prescribed care that has been delayed.
Helium is also a major concern for manufacturers of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) as well as other types of semiconductors used in many types of electrical and electronic equipment. Additionally, helium is often used as a shielding gas in arc welding, although high prices (due in part to the supply uncertainty) have contributed to the development of alternatives. By contrast, no alternative to helium is currently available for MRIs, semiconductors, and LEDs.