From the September 2018 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine
By Phil Kornbluth
It is common knowledge within the medical imaging community that liquid helium is critical to the operation of superconducting MR systems.
For that reason, scanner manufacturers and system operators need to keep an eye on what is going on with respect to helium supply, especially given the increasingly volatile helium market that we have experienced in recent years. The cost of liquid helium should also be a concern, but given the increasingly efficient helium usage of newer generation MR systems, the cost of helium should be a secondary issue.
Liquid helium is the coldest substance on the planet, with a boiling point of -452 degrees Fahrenheit (-269 degrees Centigrade). Due to its very cold temperature, it is utilized to cool the niobium titanium wire that is utilized in superconducting MR magnets down to temperatures where the wire loses its resistance to electricity and becomes superconductive. After a superconducting magnet receives its initial charge of liquid helium, the liquid helium that cools the niobium titanium wire gradually vaporizes over time and must be replenished periodically to avoid quenching the magnet. While early generation MR magnets required bi-monthly top-off, the latest generation magnets might only require replenishment on an annual basis. During periods of severe helium shortage, there is increased risk that helium deliveries could be delayed, increasing the risk of a magnet quench. When a magnet quenches, there is the potential to damage it, disruption to patient flow while the magnet is being repaired or cooled down to helium temperatures, as well as the cost to replace the helium.
Helium supply situation
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From 2011 – 2013, the helium business experienced the most severe and extended shortage in its history. Throughout that three-year period, there was an average 20 percent shortage of helium supply worldwide and all of the major helium suppliers allocated supply to their customers. Due to the shortage, it was a seller’s market and helium suppliers increased prices by at least 2 times. Helium supply was a headache for the MR OEMs during this period and there were many unpleasant interactions between them and the helium suppliers.
The shortage turned to an oversupply situation in early 2014 when a major new helium source began production in Qatar and a couple of other less important sources also entered the market. The supply and demand returned to a healthy balance, with markets stabilizing during 2016 and the first half of 2017.