January 31, 2024

Impending sale of federal helium reserve raising concerns over supply chain disruptions

Editor's Note

The US government's sale of the Federal Helium Reserve, a large underground helium stockpile in Amarillo, Texas, has raised concerns about the supply of helium for critical healthcare applications, especially MRI machines, NBC News reported January 25. The Federal Helium Reserve reportedly provides up to 30% of the country's helium. The highest bidder is the industrial gas company Messer; if the deal goes through, Messer will acquire about 1 billion cubic feet of helium and a pipeline network across Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Helium is vital for cooling the magnets in MRI machines, which are used for about 40 million scans annually in the US. MRI machines require liquid helium to function, and a shortage could disrupt medical imaging and diagnostics services. The sale of the reserve could worsen an existing helium shortage, noted the article, and the transition from public to private ownership could lead to a temporary supply shutdown.

The sale has been in the works for over a decade, mandated by Congress through the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013. However, there are complications. The facility's operations span three states, and helium enrichment—a necessary process—is not included in the sale. That process is currently handled by four private companies, including Messer. A shutdown until such issues are resolved could last up to 3 years, experts estimate.

Several trade associations have urged the White House to delay the sale until these issues are addressed. MRI manufacturers are responding by developing machines that require less helium. Replacing existing MRI machines in hospitals would be costly and slow, however, and many hospitals rely on current equipment for long-term use.


Join our community

Learn More
Video Spotlight
Live chat by BoldChat