Helium: Not Just the Stuff in Balloons

Helium is a key component in operating MRI machines.

The BBC's Justin Rowlatt is taking a close look at the economy- a very close look. In his series called "Elementary Business," Rowlatt is examining the role chemical elements play in the global economy.

Helium is a standard at most birthdays- what's a party without balloons? But Rowlatt says the importance of helium is bigger than birthdays. As a liquid, it's one of the coldest substances on Earth and an excellent superconductor.

"Every MRI scanner has helium at the heart of it," says Rowlatt. "They can't operate without this incredibly cold material."

But helium is a finite resource that is slowly escaping from the atmosphere, leading the prices to rise and some to fear what will happen if this resource runs out.

Rowlatt says the fear of running into a "helium cliff" is so high, that one of the few bills during the recent government shutdown was a bill to ensure the helium reserves in the United States remain open.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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