Health care’s reliance on helium deflates amid price increase

by Lisa Chamoff, Contributing Reporter | October 07, 2016
From the October 2016 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

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.”

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