US Sells Off Helium Supply, Stoking Fears in Medical World

Privatizing the reserve may complicate distribution of the crucial element
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 4, 2024 8:40 AM CST
US Sells Off Helium Supply, Stoking Fears in Medical World
Helium high capacity gas cilinders.   (Getty / Nikolay Amoseev)

The US government sold off the Federal Helium Reserve this week to a private buyer, a worrying move to doctors and scientists who rely on the finite gas for everything from research to operating MRI machines. The deal is still being finalized with the highest bidder, industrial gas company Messer, NBC News reports, and it includes a 1 billion cubic foot underground stockpile in Amarillo, Texas, along with 425 miles of pipelines that span several states. And while the government has been looking to offload the stockpile since the '90s, professionals who rely on helium fear that red tape following the sale will slow down access to the high-demand element.

Along with Russia and Qatar, the US is one of the top producers of helium, and the Amarillo stockpile supplies 30% of the nation's helium. Per, the federal stockpile began in 1925 to ensure supplies were available to military airships. Helium produced close to home is the cheapest option, and also comes with less risk in shipment delays (liquid helium evaporates after 35 to 48 days). Frosty trade relations with Russia and conflict in the Red Sea make foreign reliance on helium riskier. "Given the ongoing geopolitical concerns and tensions in those regions and shipping delays, it would increase concerns around potential shortages on US soil," said Soumi Saha of Premier Inc, which brokers contracts with suppliers to thousands of hospitals.

Trade associations had urged the government to delay the sale as they identified complications that could make the helium produced stateside unavailable. One concern is how a private buyer would manage the different state-specific rules regarding the pipelines, which span through Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma (something the federal government bypassed). Another is how contracts may shift with an enrichment system owned by four private companies (including Messer). "A new owner will need to create some sort of lease to use the enrichment unit, or build their own unit to enrich the helium," said Rich Gottwald, CEO of the Compressed Gas Association. "There's a whole host of issues that need to be resolved and the concern is, until they're resolved, the system will need to shut down."

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A spokesperson from the US Department of Interior said in a statement that it's not worth sweating over supply issues. "Sale of the reserve to a private party, as Congressionally mandated by law, is not expected to meaningfully change the availability of helium." Helium, the coldest element on the planet, is lighter than air and is unreactive, making it safer to use than elements like hydrogen. Helium is essential to computer chip production, cooling quantum computers, and MRI imaging. (Party City has closed stores over the years due to helium shortages.)

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