What’s up with helium?

Vince Jesaitis photo

Think of helium, and we think birthday balloons and silly high-pitched voices.  But helium plays a number of critical roles in our economy – from health care to high-tech manufacturing.  Helium is a key component in MRI machines, for instance, and we couldn’t make the semiconductors for our computers and other electronics without it.  That’s why a looming cut-off of helium sales is so concerning, and why two ITI members are testifying before Congress today to keep the U.S. supply available.

The largest helium reserve in the world is outside of Amarillo, Texas.  The facility holds approximately 40 percent of the world’s helium – around a billion cubic meters of the gas. Building this reserve was very expensive, so Congress passed a law in 1996 – the Helium Privatization Act – that mandated the sale of the U.S. supply there at a fixed rate, regardless of market value. 

The legal authority to sell the helium expires this fall and, absent congressional action, will mean a major setback for the U.S. economy.  Helium costs would spike, likely sparking a jump in the prices of products on which all of us rely each day.  And U.S. jobs may disappear as manufacturers would be forced to shift operations closer to other helium sources around the globe.

Fortunately, Congress is working toward a solution.  There is strong bipartisan support for H.R. 527, the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, authored by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings and Ranking Member Ed Markey.  The Committee held a hearing on the bill today, and Micron Technology and Corning Incorporated,  both ITI members, testified about the crippling effects that congressional inaction would have for their businesses.

As Rodney Morgan, Vice President of Procurement at Micron notes in his testimony:

“Helium is just one of a number of gasses used to make our memory chips, but it’s absolutely vital.  To put it simply, without helium, we cannot operate.   Micron is not alone in its dependence on this crucial gas….[W]e are dependent on regular deliveries to our facilities.  A delay of even a few days could slow production at a semiconductor facility.  A significant delay, could idle a plant entirely.”

Similarly, Brad Boersen, Director of Business Strategy for the Optical Fiber and Cable, Telecommunications Business Group of Corning testified about the critical importance of Helium to optical fiber manufacturing:

“We require helium in sufficient quantities and at prices that enable us to maintain our global cost competitiveness. Given the unique qualities of helium, it is difficult to store on site for more than 10 days.  For this reason, and the global nature of our demand, we have established strategic supplier relationships and long-term supply agreements…. Helium is the only gas that prevents bubbles from forming in the preform manufacturing step, which would render the fiber unusable. There is presently no substitute for helium in this process.”

The House hearing today is a great first step.  But without bursting anyone’s balloons, there is a long way to go in the legislative process to avert this looming crisis.

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  • Caroline Kazmierski Fri., February 15, 3:52 AM
    For more information on the helium issue check out SIA's OpEd in Roll Call from 2/12--Securing Helium Supply Is No Heavy Lift http://www.rollcall.com/news/toohey_securing_helium_supply_is_no_heavy_lift-222369-1.html
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