Nothing on Earth can replace helium, and it is in danger

Nothing on Earth can replace helium, and it is in danger

Liquid helium has helped build billion-dollar industries and spawn multiple Nobel prizes. Now our supply is running low.

Liquid helium is a quiet engine of American business and research. It is essential for a wide range of technologies, from cutting-edge quantum computing to MRI scanners in hospitals. It has fostered the development of multi-billion dollar industries, powered essential life-saving medical tools, supported work that led to more than 5,000 patents, and helped generate multiple Nobel prizes. In short, it is critical to innovation.

Without helium, much scientific research would stop. Hundreds of millions of dollars in technical equipment would be shut down and the education and training of all students who use it would stop.

Yet due in large part to supply chain disruptions, notably Qatar's continued economic isolation from many of its neighbors, and unplanned production disruptions, U.S. scientists and engineers are grappling with shortages and rising prices of liquid helium.

Solving this problem could be an easy bipartisan victory for the Trump administration and Congress: Researchers and businesses in every state depend on helium. Our leaders must take action to help alleviate shortages and keep America's train of innovation moving.

Helium is a by-product of the radioactive decay of heavy elements located in the Earth's crust, a process that takes hundreds of millions of years. Most of the helium is obtained through the natural gas extraction process.

Addressing the strategic importance of helium, in 1925 Congress established an underground helium storage facility outside Amarillo, Texas (helium was initially used in airships). The reserve has helped keep supply in balance, increasing production and smoothing supply disruptions during shortages.

Currently, the reserve satisfies more than 40 percent of domestic demand. And while other countries produce helium, including Qatar, Algeria and Russia, geopolitics makes it nearly impossible for the United States to depend on them for such a critical resource. Recognizing how essential supply is, last year the Trump administration listed helium as a "critical element."

But lawmakers are apparently uncomfortable in the helium business: They put an expiration date on the standby facility, requiring the secretary of the interior to dispose of all helium assets no later than Sept.30, 2021, as part of the Helium Management Act of 2013. Members of Congress have said that private industry would step in and increase production when the reserve closes. This is not happening.

If the reserve shutters are closed in 2021, liquid helium will be in short supply and the price will continue to rise.

Congress should enact legislation that maintains the federal reserve after 2021, while serving only federally funded projects (the reserve is paid for in tax dollars, after all). It should create an extensive helium recycling program modeled after the modest and successful National Science Foundation program.

Last year, Congress authorized more than $ 1 billion in funding for workforce training and research in quantum science. But liquid helium is an essential fuel for quantum science, and the initiative cannot succeed without it. If lawmakers take America's future as a leader in science and innovation seriously, they will fix this problem.

There is no replacement on Earth for helium. It is a strategic natural resource, and Congress and the administration must act to keep our nation's innovation enterprise strong.

Source: The New York Times

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