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Looming "helium cliff" could be costly

Published On: Feb 17 2013 07:00:00 PM EST   Updated On: Feb 19 2013 05:30:07 AM EST

Forget the fiscal cliff; now there's the "helium cliff."

Forget the fiscal cliff; now there's the "helium cliff." If Congress doesn't act, some are predicting a "ballooning" crisis that could cost us all.

"Most people think of blimps and balloons, but helium is much more than that," said Walter Nelson, director of helium sourcing for Lehigh County-based Air Products.

In fact, helium is used to make welding torches, fiber optic internet cables, and semiconductor chips for computers and smart phones.

"For iPads and iPhones," said Nelson.

That's why Nelson is so nervous.

"We could be facing what's been termed the 'Helium Cliff,'" he said.

The U.S. government controls roughly 30 percent of the market through a Federal Helium Reserve in Texas. But because of legislation passed in 1996, the reserve will shut down in two years if Congress doesn't continue funding.

"It would be as if you took 30 percent of the world's oil off of the market," said Nelson.

At Mimi's Balloons in Allentown, they've already raised prices and cut back.

"The helium supply has been pretty scarce," said owner Ruth Clark. "We're trying to build some of our arches and hearts and canopies out of air rather than helium."

And this looming "helium cliff" could even make hospital visits more expensive.

"We use liquid helium to cool MRIs," said Dr. Gene Ferretti, MRI chief at St. Luke's University Health Network.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines use helium to super-cool their massive magnets. The magnets get extremely hot. Since liquid helium has an extremely low boiling point, it is the most effective way to cool the machines.

St. Luke's does about 30,000 MRI scans a year at its 10 campuses. Although newer machines don't require as much helium, Ferretti still predicted an effect.

"The cost would eventually get passed on somewhere," he said. "It could get passed onto insurance companies and patients."

In Congress, there are competing bills to address the issue. Senate legislation, co-sponsored by both Pennsylvania senators, would keep the reserve open until it's depleted. The House version would auction-off supply, something Nelson believes would de-stabilize the helium market.

Either way, experts predict the government reserve will run out in the next decade. So what happens then? Nelson said Air Products is already working on replacement supplies, including a new refinery in Wyoming.

"There's a number of new helium sources that are going to be coming on stream soon," he said.

But until then, this is one "ballooning" issue that threatens to deflate our wallets.