The sell-off of the federal strategic helium reserve has driven up demand for the vital element and poses a threat to the supply that researchers need, a panel of U.S. experts reported on Friday.
The report by the National Academy of Sciences recommends that Congress consider maintaining a reserve of the element crucial in research, space, medical and defense programs.
"The committee finds that selling off the helium reserve ... has adversely affected critical users of helium and is not in the best interest of the U.S. taxpayers or the country," the report said.
Congress in 1996 ordered the government to get out of the helium reserve business and sell it off to private industry. The law requiring the liquidation of the helium reserve, created in the 1920s, also called for evaluation by the National Academies to determine whether the sell-off hindered the work of U.S. researchers.
Charles Groat of the University of Texas at Austin, who was committee co-chairman, said researchers were "very uncomfortable" about the prospect of having to get helium from Russia or the Middle East once the U.S. supply is depleted.
Groat said helium was an essential commodity that taxpayers depend on daily yet know little about.
"To most people, helium is party balloons and the Goodyear blimp," he said in a telephone interview.
"Essentially every medical doctor and every medical lab that deals with injuries and stuff has an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). MRIs have to have helium," said Groat.
"NASA can't fly its rockets without helium because it's used in cleaning the fuel tanks," he added.
The report said that "small-scale government-funded researchers who use helium have been hit particularly hard by sharp price rises and shortages that have characterized the helium market in recent times."
The United States has about 18 billion cubic feet of the colorless, odorless element, a byproduct of collecting natural gas, stored in a facility near Amarillo, Texas, Groat said.
The strategic reserve was started when the government needed a ready supply of helium to fuel airships in a crisis and was bolstered during the Cold War.
While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, it is rare on Earth and generated by the decay of heavy radioactive elements such as uranium.