Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Helium Shortage Threatens Medical Procedures

By Stephen LUntz

CSIRO and Macquarie University have launched a helium recycling system in time to keep vital medical technology operating in the face of a crisis.

Helium is the ultimate non-renewable resource. If we run out of oil, fresh water or almost anything else there is at least a possibility of drilling deeper, manufacturing replacements or cleaning impure sources.

Helium is a different matter. Produced over millions of years by the breakdown of radioactive isotopes, only small amounts are trapped in natural gas fields and supplies are running out.

This might not matter if helium was only used for party balloons and blimps, the two applications with which most people are familiar. However, five times as much helium is used for more vital activities like cooling medical equipment and the production of semiconductors. In many cases no suitable alternative exists.

During the Cold War, America stockpiled helium in an underground reservoir, but since 1996 it has been selling it off, keeping prices artificially low even as demand has ballooned. As the amount scheduled for sale gets close to running out, prices have quadrupled, proving a problem for many users.

“I’ve been kept awake at night worrying about how we can afford it,” says Prof Stephen Cain of Macquarie University’s Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders. Cain’s magneto-encephalography (MEG) machine uses 200 litres of helium per week. With prices passing $100/litre, this has made it hard to continue the study of children’s brainwaves in the non-intrusive ways made possible by MEG machines.

While some natural gas drillers may start to capture the helium they are currently allowing to escape, recycling is becoming essential. Major users, such as the Large Hadron Collider, already recycle most of their helium rather than allowing it to boil off.

However, Macquarie is pioneering the recapture of helium from smaller devices. Cain says 90–95% will be captured for reuse and liquefied through the new generation of powerful but compact cooling machines.

The recycling project will allow Macquarie to continue to operate its MEG for people with cochlear implants, but Dr Cathy Foley, Chief of CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, says we need to be preserving our limited helium supplies for purposes such as research and medical applications. “The cost of a helium balloon should be about $35,” she says.