Why The Qatar Crisis Could Be Bad For Science, Medicine, and Children's Parties

MRI machines rely on supercooling with liquid helium, something that may be threatened by the Qatar crisis. Gagliardilmages/Shutterstock 

The superconducting magnets in MRI machines, the Large Hadron Colider, supersonic wind tunnels, and space telescopes are just some of the technologies that depend on it. After a surge in prices around 2013, many labs started recycling their helium, but the gas has an extraordinary escape capacity, so this approach only goes so far.

If some of the gas fields that currently let their helium escape chose to capture and sell it instead, the problem would go away, at least for the short term. However, this may only be a temporary fix. For the moment, the rise of solar and wind is eating into coal consumption, but eventually these technologies will have to start displacing methane consumption if the world is to have any chance of getting climate change under control. At that point, the world's helium supplies could come under pressure.

The discovery last year of a much richer helium field in Tanzania, with hopes that this could be indicative of more to come, might resolve that problem, but it is too early to be sure.

In the meantime, the world has got by on US helium reserves built up in the years when demand for helium was low. Organizations such as the British Medical Association, however, fear these stocks are being sold off too cheaply, allowing people to waste a gas that will become horrendously expensive when the reserves are exhausted.

The combination of its status as a byproduct of a much more economically significant commodity and the overhang from a never-to-be repeated reserve, means helium has proved unusually difficult to price correctly. Qatar could be a warning that we need to get our act together on this topic if we want to go on being able to probe everything from brain activity to distant galaxies.

Beautiful, but endangered by interruptions to helium. Also, please don't let them go. TWStock/Shutterstock


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