BOISE -- What's clear, lighter than air, and vital to the Idaho economy? Helium.
Helium is critical to medical imaging in hospitals, and high-tech manufacturing, like we see at Micron, one of Idaho's largest employers.
But, later this year, supply from the Federal Helium Reserve was set to shut down, eliminating about 40 percent of helium from the market. If that happened, the price of helium would skyrocket, and consumers would take the hit on everything from computers to medical services.
But Friday, a bill passed the House of Representatives that will allow the Reserve's helium to be sold for a year, then slowly phased out.
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson says that's huge. "The semiconductor industry is not only considered a key American industry, but it is vital to our Idaho economy."
Dan Francisco with Micron agrees. "Our primary concern is a stable supply of helium, and we obviously support any legislation that helps prevent helium shortages. So, the approval of today's legislation by the House is certainly a step in the right direction."
But, it's not a solution. Even with the Federal Reserve, helium supplies were already decreasing. Norco, a gas supplier headquartered in Boise, said the price already quadrupled in the past decade. That's why high-tech manufacturers are trying to completely eliminate or reduce the need for helium.
"Helium is a finite resource," said Francisco. "As an industry, we're working hard to reduce the amount we use, and are trying to develop alternatives. But right now, nothing exists."
Besides reducing the need, congressmen hope that people in the private natural gas industry step up in the next few years to find enough helium to fill the void left by the Federal Reserve, and then some.
The bill now heads to the Senate, and afterwards, many hope, the President's desk.