We hear it all the time: the earth’s precious resources are limited. Natural gas, coal, crude oil – they will one day run out. It’s a fact we’re all aware of. But how – and most importantly when – will we respond? Burying our heads in the sand is not an answer. To promote a sustainable future, we need to take action.
Helium is one of our planet’s most naturally abundant gases, but just like fossil fuels, its supply is limited. Moreover, only a handful of countries (notably the USA and Qatar) actually capture and store helium before it escapes back into the atmosphere. This means it is not only finite but already a scarce commodity today.
The era where helium supply could be replenished by drawing on strategic US reserves is almost over, and replacing it is not straightforward. New (medium-term) sources are largely created as a by-product of planned oil and gas mega projects in Qatar, Algeria or Russia. But these are subject to delays and therefore not reliable.1
What does this mean for healthcare?
One of the largest uses for helium gas today is in science and healthcare. Within these fields, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) accounts for a significant proportion. In fact, worldwide, MRI scanners alone are responsible for 20% of helium consumption. In the USA, the figure is as high as 31%.2
As a result, the technology is highly susceptible to fluctuations in supply and directly affected by the consequences of helium’s eventual dissipation. The impacts are already clear: between 2011 and 2013, prices for the valuable gas quadrupled, which, in some cases, even resulted in scientific instrument shutdowns.3