By Barbara Kennedy, Penn State
Moses Chan, an Evan Pugh Professor of Physics at Penn State University, testified before the U.S. Senate on whether the sell-off of the nation’s helium reserve has an adverse effect on the nation’s scientific, technical, biomedical and national-security users of helium. Chan, a member of the National Academy of Sciences / National Research Council (NAS/NRC) Committee on Understanding the Impact of Selling the Helium Reserve, gave his testimony to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on May 10.
While primarily known for its festive use in filling party balloons, helium is a crucial resource for many scientific, technological and national-security-related pursuits. It is used in the manufacture of such items as semiconductors, fiber optics and microchips. In addition, it is used by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense to pressurize liquid hydrogen and oxygen that is burned together in order to propel rockets. In its liquid form, helium is used to cool superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Liquid helium also makes it possible to conduct scientific research at temperatures close to absolute zero. Although low-temperature research uses less than 3 percent of the helium in the world market, the research is crucial in revealing the underlying physics that makes modern electronic devices such as cell phones and computers possible. Helium is found in a very small fraction of the natural-gas wells and typically accounts for less than 1 percent of the content of these wells. The Federal Helium Reserve, established in 1960, provides strategic storage and eliminates fluctuation in the supply of helium for the world market. In 1996, however, the U.S. Congress enacted the Helium Privatization Act that mandates the selling off of the Federal Helium Reserve by 2015.
In his testimony, Chan detailed the conclusions of the NAS/NRC report that he co-authored in 2010, pointing out potential problems in eliminating and selling off the Federal Helium Reserve according to the Helium Privatization Act. Chan spoke primarily on behalf of the scientific community in endorsing the newly proposed Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, which is sponsored by a large number of the Democratic and Republican senators of the Energy Committee. According to the Helium Stewardship Act, which would amend the 1996 Privatization Act, a roughly 15-year supply of the nation’s helium reserve would be maintained for defense, strategic and scientific uses. Researchers in universities would have priority access to the reserve in case of market shortages.
“It is heartening to see that the work my colleagues and I did for the NAS/NRC study was taken seriously by the Senate Energy Committee,” Chan said. “We hope the Stewardship Act will be enacted and that it will remove the concern of abrupt price hikes and sudden shortages.”