The Fallout of a Helium-3 Crisis

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The United States is currently recovering from a helium isotope crisis that last year sent low-temperature physicists scrambling, sky-rocketed the cost of hospital MRIs, and threw national security staff out on a search mission for alternate ways to detect dirty bombs.

“Everybody was freaking out, going into closets and digging out what you could,” said low-temperature physicist Marcius Extavour, who is currently serving as a science policy fellow at the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy.

While it’s a different kind of helium than what’s used for party balloons, the gas inflated an amazing rate of discoveries that led to four Nobel prizes in physics, a see-through method of looking at lungs and a backpack of equipment that border security patrols can wear to check whether cargo coming into the country carries nuclear material.

But the isotope, helium-3, like many rare Earth elements, has been in high demand with only limited supply.

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Because those who use helium-3 were buying it on the cheap, there was no incentive to conserve the gas, despite the supply being cut short in 1989 with the end of the Cold War.

Helium-3 was “considered a waste product from the weapons so it was priced low,” explained Director Julie Bentz of the Nuclear Defense Policy Office of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator. She spoke today during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

The gas is part of the leftovers that come from cooking up a hydrogen bomb, which requires uranium and a dash of tritium. When the radioactive tritium decays it produces helium-3. While there are other ways of decaying tritium without needing to build a bomb to do it, the United States has recently found itself in short supply of both tritium and the resulting helium-3.

So short in fact, that last year when the looming crisis, which reporters had been covering for years, became official, the price of helium-3 went from $150 per liter to $5,000 per liter. “We think the correct price should be $1500,” Bentz said.

The science, medical and security uses for helium-3 are so diverse that the crisis banded together a hodge-podge of universities, hospitals and government departments to try and find workable alternatives and engineer ways to recycle the gas they do have.

“This has been a bad way to do good inter-agency cooperation,” said engineer Joe Glaser of the Department of Energy. A promising alternative gas for hunting down radioactive neutrons and gamma particles for example is boron, but for medical purposes nothing beats helium-3.

For those suffering with asthma, cystic fibrosis, or other lung limitations, a simple X-ray will show the lungs as black holes in the body, a mystery box of trouble. But if a patient takes a breath of helium-3, the resulting MRI is so bright it looks as though the patient inhaled a light bulb.

Jason Woods of Washington University in St. Louis worked with German engineers to develop a way of recycling the helium after it is used in imaging a patient’s lungs. The MRI imaging requires the patient hold his or her breath for 10 seconds. Instead of just breathing out normally, the patient exhales into a helium-impermeable bag. Woods then super freezes the helium to remove moisture and charcoal filters it, making the helium good for a second use. Until the FDA approves the recycled helium for humans, however, Woods anticipates this may be a way for veterinarians to access the coveted helium-3.

For a party that suddenly saw the balloons all pop, despite the warnings, everyone jumped.

IMAGE 1: A conventional MRI image of the lungs (left) and an MRI of lungs after the patient has inhaled helium-3. Image courtesy Jason Woods.

IMAGE 2: Border security with backpacks equipped with helium-3 to test for nuclear cargo. Image courtesy of Joe Glaser

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