GE’s liquefaction system, which recycles
helium during the manufacturing process,
is at the company’s magnet manufacturing
facility in South Carolina

Health care’s reliance on helium deflates amid price increase

October 07, 2016
by Lisa Chamoff, Contributing Reporter
Just like the blimps and balloons it fills, the price of helium has been on the rise for the last several years. And despite the recent discovery of a vast deposit of the gas in Tanzania, MR manufacturers and independent service providers are not optimistic that costs will come down significantly, if at all.

At the same time, more facilities are swapping older MR scanners for systems with zero helium boil-off technology. After a global helium shortage and skyrocketing prices from 2011 to 2013, during which time a number of U.S. plants had production issues, those in the industry are cautiously optimistic that the helium supply can meet the growing demand, which comes not only from health care, but also from other industries, including semiconductor manufacturing.

“Things have pretty much been stagnant,” says Ron Schultz, field service manager for Cool Pair Plus. “The availability of helium is easier now. However, we’re seeing price increases continue. It doesn’t really seem like we’re going in the downward direction anytime soon.” Helium prices have been hovering in the mid-teens per liter, those in the industry say. Ken Sourounis, managing partner of CryoSRV, says his company pays about 30 percent more per liter than it did five years ago.

Randal Walker, vice president of CT and MR for BC Technical, says prices have increased 30 percent in the last two years, and that helium can cost up to $18 per liter in some cases. Helium supply no longer appears to be an issue, however. “We’re using less helium than we have in the past, so the supply is more stable,” Walker says. “We’re not having to skip fills.” Andrew Wade, helium commodity manager at Siemens Healthineers, says new helium sources came online in 2013 in Qatar, and new planned sources in Qatar and Russia could support the helium industry well into the next decade.

“More plants means there’s more balance in the supply chain,” Wade says. “We’re expecting a flattening or rebalancing of prices, though we are aware that new sources will require significant investments and higher logistical costs.”

Africa discovery
In June, researchers from Oxford and Durham universities in the U.K., working with Norwegian helium exploration company Helium One, announced the discovery of helium reserves in Tanzania’s East African Rift Valley. The discovery is considered unique, as helium is normally extracted from natural gas as part of the drilling process, and is generally not discovered intentionally, according to the researchers. They say the same strategy could be used to find helium in other parts of the world where there is volcanic activity.

The researchers found that the area’s volcanic activity produced enough heat to release helium from ancient rocks, trapping it in shallower gas fields, according to a news release issued by Oxford. Oxford professor Chris Ballentine noted that independent experts estimate there is likely 54 billion cubic feet of helium in just one part of the valley, nearly seven times the total amount of helium consumed globally every year and enough to fill more than 1.2 million MR scanners.

“This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs, and similar finds in the future may not be far away,” Ballentine said in the statement. There is uncertainty among those in the health care industry about when the discovery in Tanzania will pay off. “No one has announced any plans to extract helium,” Wade says. “No one really knows how big the reserve is despite the speculative figures quoted in the press.”

According to published reports, Thomas Abraham-James, chief executive officer of Helium One, said the company was seeking $40 million in investments and once it confirms the gas exists, extraction could begin by 2021. Abraham-James declined to comment further to HealthCare Business News on the commercialization of the discovery. Wade also notes that since natural gas is a larger priority, helium does not get a large share of investment.

“For example, in Qatar, the main gas plant employs several thousand people,” Wade says. “The helium plant employs just a handful of people. Whilst helium is important, it’s not the main driver of that facility.” There is also the issue of building the infrastructure to support the export and delivery of the gas, which is a complex process, in a fairly remote location. “They have to build infrastructure and build the roads,” Schultz says. “I wouldn’t see any changes in the availability globally in the next few years.”

‘Open to atmosphere’
The discovery comes at a tipping point in health care. The helium shortages of the past have hastened the adoption of new zero boil-off technology, in which helium is re-condensed and brought back to a liquid state, leading to an MR scanner that requires just a fraction of the gas needed by older systems to keep them cold. “For a new installation, it’s the only thing that should be considered,” says Sourounis, of CryoSRV.

The technology was first released by GE in 1998. Siemens and Philips also offer it. Wade, of Siemens, estimates that roughly 60 percent to 70 percent of the installed magnets in the industry now employ zero boil-off technology. “In the last couple of years, we swapped more than 50 magnets for people from the old technology to zero boil-off,” says Walker of BC Technical, which has nearly 700 magnets under agreement.

When the cryogenic system is operating to spec, a zero boil-off system should maintain its helium level, Sourounis says. Some systems do release a small amount of helium during maintenance. “Just by design, when service is performed, the vessel of some systems is open to atmosphere,” Sourounis says. “This will cause a minor drop in helium. On sealed systems, when maintenance is performed on schedule, no helium loss should ever occur.”

The systems are zero boil-off under optimal conditions, barring power outages, which can sometimes lead to problems with the supporting infrastructure. OEMs and ISOs offer remote monitoring technology and service contracts to ensure problems can be noticed before helium is lost. “A well-managed system really does mean zero boil-off,” says Wade, who noted that Siemens service engineers have informed him that there are facilities in Japan where zero boil-off magnets had been installed for eight years and have not been topped-up with helium. Over the years, the reliability of the systems has improved, says Ioannis Panagiotelis, chief marketing officer for MR at GE Healthcare.

“In theory, a GE magnet can live 10 years without any refill,” Panagiotelis says. “I will not claim that there cannot be incidents where there is leakage, for example where there have been power outages that may lead to some refill, but this is typically done as part of the service process. The customer covered by a service contract is not impacted at all.”

The supply has stabilized as manufacturers have invested in helium recycling during the building of the magnets. GE made a $17 million investment in a liquefaction facility, which collects gas produced during the manufacturing process and re-liquifies it for use in the manufacturing process. It’s entirely possible that MR systems may evolve to the point of not requiring nearly as much helium as even zero boil-off systems.

GE is currently partnering with the Mayo Clinic to investigate a 3T MR prototype scanner using a new magnet technology that requires just 1 percent of the helium of a conventional system. “We at GE call it zero helium as you never need to touch it, either following transit, or any planned service or unplanned event,” Panagiotelis says. “If proven, it could help further spread MR to cover more areas where there has been limited availability of the technology.”

Although many hospitals and health care facilities are growing less reliant on helium by the truckload, it remains a valuable commodity. “The interesting part is that we’re finding more and more uses for liquid helium outside the medical industry,” Walker says. “In manufacturing, electronics, you have to use liquid helium. As we see a drop-off in demand on the medical side, we’re seeing an increase in demand on the manufacturing side that wasn’t there before.”