In 2010, scientists cautioned Congress of an imminent helium crisis. The most commonly used inert element is tapping out at an alarming rate, experts warned, with the possibility of helium ceasing to exist in a useable form on our planet within the next 30 years.
The problem started sometime between WWI and WWII, when the U.S. decided to take raw helium from the Texas Panhandle and pump it back into the Bush Dome -- a far-reaching underground reservoir where almost a third of the world’s supply is contained. By 1995, the reserve was $1.4 billion in debt after a billion cubic meters of the gas had been utilized, prompting Congress to pass the 1996 Helium Privatization Act to sell off the Dome and its reserves by 2015, regardless of the market price. The act stipulated that the same amount of helium should be sold each year, whatever the global demand for it.
To deflate this issue and supplant the 1996 law, a Senate panel examined the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 in May. This bill includes maintaining a steady 15-year supply of helium for federal users and research grant holders, also giving priority, in times of shortage, to federally funded researchers.
Until a final resolution is reached, the shortage is proving particularly difficult for those who work with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners – which are cooled by the liquid form of the gas. In a nutshell, sans a constant supply of helium, new MRI machines cannot be produced and current machines would eventually cease to function.
Maintenance disruptions and closures
In July, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which operates the federal helium program, had a planned outage that lasted almost two weeks. Unplanned and scheduled maintenance disruptions like this are common at the BLM. But with several plants simultaneously shutting down for maintenance over the past few months, there have been fewer resources available to go around.
“The Exxon Mobil shutdown (June through September) has contributed to the shortage of helium along with Riley Ridge being delayed and the BLM shutdown,” says Ellen Joyner, a product manager for the service portion of Siemens Healthcare’s MR business unit. “Exxon reduced supply by 20 percent during its shutdown period and BLM reduced supply by approximately 50 percent during its shutdown period. All helium suppliers are impacted.”
Further to this, Asian countries receive helium from plants in Algeria and Qatar, and lately those resources haven’t been operating at full capacity either, due to lack of energy for production.
“There is just no helium available to do cool downs,” says David Baldwin, vice president of Cool Pair Plus. “We have probably turned away at least ten cool downs in the last two months, just because there is no helium available. And again, those ten cool downs required maybe 50,000 liters of helium.”
Until helium’s cup runneth over once more, suppliers will need to increase charges, as the limited stores have pushed up their own costs. The BLM is raising helium prices, up by $8.25 from the previous fiscal year to a total of $84 per thousand cubic feet in the upcoming fiscal year.
“As the supply managed by the BLM diminishes, the price per liter will continue to rise as the newer sources will be more costly,” says Jeff Fall, president of Oxford Instruments Service, LLC, which provides storage and maintenance of cold magnets, helium top up services in the field, as well as cool down services on a variety of magnet models.
Although dim, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Many plants are re-opening in the coming months, while new plants and supplies in the Middle East will become more significant two to five years from now, according to Scott Silcock, Toshiba America Medical Systems’ director of service logistics management. This could extend resources for at least the next 100 years.
“We anticipate from our suppliers that we will start to see an increase in helium come September, because those plants will be back online,” says Joyner. “We have been managing the helium for all of our contract customers very carefully. The supply is not going to be fully online until 2013, when Qatar comes online.”
As more customers focus on conservation and preventive maintenance, Baldwin believes the issue will balance itself out after Q1 of 2013.
Conservation through preventive maintenance
Historically, it was common for MRI system owners to decline regular preventive maintenance contracts. It was only when a system had been run to death that service providers would be called in to save the day. But that attitude was prevalent when helium was plentiful and cheap. With today’s helium costs, end users can no longer afford to ignore MRI keep cold and cool down services.
The MRI industry uses close to 28 percent of the world’s helium supplies, according to research done by Moses Chen, a professor with the University of Pennsylvania. But helium utilization is slowly abating. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s statistics, in 2011, 56 million cubic meters of helium were used, compared with 74 million cubic meters consumed in 2007.
“It’s like trying to conserve gas or electricity; it’s figuring out what you have to do to minimize the loss of helium,” says Siemens’ Joyner.
The U.S. helium shortage has already hit MRI owners who have chosen to operate without a maintenance contract, according to Wayne Scott, vice president of magnet operations at Medallion Magnet Services.
“The days of waiting to replace a cold-head once it fails may be over,” he explains. “With a limited supply of liquid helium, MRI owners will need to maintain their cold-head, compressor and chillers to reduce unnecessary helium boil-off. Due to the helium shortage, we are unable to take on new accounts. That’s causing the service business to suffer.”
If an MRI system is not under an OEM or third party service contract, the end user is really taking a gamble, according to Nathan Welch, CT and MR specialist at Amber Diagnostics.
“If you are self-insuring your scanner, you need to be aware that it may take a while for you to receive helium,” he says. “If you are operating with an older magnet that has a higher helium loss, make sure your PMs are performed in accordance with the OEM, including your coldhead and absorber.”
In the long-term, as more companies actually look into how much they are spending on helium, they will reduce their consumption through better magnet maintenance, according to Baldwin.
“We can help them do that through proactive maintenance agreements, remote monitoring and other methods,” Baldwin says.
To further protect customers, risk management will need to include helium in future plans and one outcome of that will be the sale of improved MRIs, according to Toshiba’s Silcock.
“The whole value proposition would need to include the impact of helium supply in regard to downtime and risk,” he says. “Zero boil-off magnets will reduce the need for helium baring any other issues such as power disruption or chiller issues.”
New technology and potential helium alternatives
PMs and contracts aside, even the most prepared and protected hospital can have an unprecedented loss. For instance, most modern hospitals own high-field super-conducting MRI systems, like the University of Tennessee (UT) Medical Center, which has four, each filled with approximately 200 liters of liquid helium. These MRI systems are considered “zero-loss”, so barring any unusual event, there is very little loss of the helium due to efficient recapture methods incorporated into the scanner, according to Dr. Alexander Pasciak, assistant professor and medical physicist at the UT Medical Center’s department of radiology.
But last year, an unusual event occurred at the facility.
“A spontaneous quench of one of our MRI systems occurred during the night,” says Pasciak. “During a quench of a super-conducting MRI system, all of the liquid helium inside the scanner is boiled off in a matter of seconds and released to the outside through a pipe in the scan-room ceiling.”
After this incident, although UT Medical Center quickly identified and corrected the source of the problem, they struggled to acquire the 200 liters of helium necessary to get the scanner back online. Such a large quantity of liquid helium was not available in Tennessee, and had to be shipped from Texas. Consequently, the scanner was down for several days.
Zero-loss MRI systems like this have been available on the market for the past seven years, but industry experts believe helium shortages will be significant enough to drive the sale of newer, even more efficient MRIs.
So-called zero boil off magnets go back to 2004, when Siemens introduced the MAGNETOM Avanto 1.5T. A zero boil-off magnet works through the cold-head, which controls the liquid helium from being lost by actually condensing it back into a liquid as it turns into a gas and letting it drop back into the magnet.
In addition, the advanced MRI scanners are cheaper. The cost to maintain the magnet side to keep an older system like a GES3 cold, compared to a new Avanto, might mean a difference of $25,000 per year – that’s also one-fifth the cost of maintenance on the newer system, says Baldwin.
“It seems like OEMs are coming out with magnets that consume less helium every year,” Amber Diagnostics’ Welch says. “It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the OEMs came out with a high-field MR that doesn’t require helium or took a different type of gas that’s cheaper or more abundant.”
Newer products require less liquid helium in them, as they are smaller vessels, so they will be less expensive to maintain. But the coldhead and compressor technology hasn’t changed and still needs to be maintained, according to Marc Fessler, partner at Independence Cryogenic Engineering.
“When the MRI system shuts down, there has been an excessive loss of liquid helium, so suddenly, all the money an end user has saved by not buying liquid helium will suddenly need to be spent on liquid helium again [if a customer does not incorporate preventive maintenance],” he says.
Owners and providers of helium consuming magnets are searching for alternatives. For example, GE’s South Carolina base uses about 5.5 million liters of helium and the company distributes about 6 million liters to service magnets. The company has invested approximately $1 million into its factory’s technology to help preserve helium and look into alternative resources, and two years ago, GE was the recipient of a $3.27 million National Institutes of Health grant to look into using magnesium-diboride wires. If the wires work, they could replace the nionium-titanium wires commonly used for the magnets. Nioniumtitanium wires are only superconducting at a temperature equivalent to about -443 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, even though the alloys for magnesium-dibroride wires are more expensive, they can become superconducting at much higher temperatures, potentially cutting the need for helium or even making it possible to use some other type of coolant or technique to keep a magnet from quenching.
“Eventually, technology will need to move to the point where you don’t have to rely completely on a natural resource,” says Joyner.
DOTmed Registered DMBN September 2012 - Keep Cold and Cool Down Companies
Names in boldface are Premium Listings.
Larry Gooch, Magnetech Engineering Services Inc.
Michael Kingery, Amber Diagnostics
Michaelle Serrano, Oxford Instruments Service, LLC
Todd King, KING Equipment Services, Inc
Gary Provenzano, Proton Services, Inc.
Mahmood ElHoor, RBMEng
shenyang zhang, Medical equipment maintenance services company
Erik Rehn, inmed medizintechnik gmbh
Gianluca Ranieri, Rem S.p.A.