By Joseph Sam
If you’re hosting a child’s birthday party any time soon, expect the price of helium balloons to be higher than the last time you might have bought them. That is, if you can even get them. Helium is scarce and has been for some time - the world’s supply of it has been diminishing for many years. Unfortunately, it’s not a renewable resource, so once it’s gone, it will be gone for good. Pricing and availability are starting to reflect that. At the last U.S. auction, helium’s price rose 135 percent due to its limited availability.
Of course, this doesn’t just affect party balloons. Healthcare uses a substantial amount of helium. Standard MRI scanners require around 1,700 liters of liquid helium to keep their cooling systems healthy by surrounding the superconducting magnet, coils, and wires within them. Because of the high amount of energy used by these machines, the conducting materials need to be near zero degrees for them to work properly without overheating. Liquid helium reaches temperatures of -452 degrees Fahrenheit, making it an ideal solution for keeping the system cool. Maintaining a healthy cooling system is essential to the performance of the MRI’s scanning magnet and helps avoid unnecessary helium loss.
The cost of downtime
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On average, MRI machines are down for regular maintenance between 35-40 hours per year. During that time, hospitals can lose up to $35,000 per day that a machine is down. So, when an unexpected maintenance need occurs, its impact is significant, particularly when adding in patient throughput loss and employee salaries. Of course, the biggest concern with downtime is that it hampers healthcare providers’ ability to make important diagnoses.
If helium levels get too low, failure with the MRI cooling system can cause an unplanned quench. During a quench, the superconducting magnet coils get too hot, the helium boils off, the magnetic field is lost, and the MRI shuts down. During the boiling process, the liquid helium turns into gas and leaks into the room, requiring the room to be evacuated. Helium gas can be dangerous as it displaces oxygen. It can also lead to hypothermia due to its cold temperature. Once the room is ventilated and safe after a quench, a proper inspection and servicing of the MRI machine will need to be done. An unplanned MRI quench can be very expensive, but regular maintenance and checkups on the machine will help avoid this.
Additionally, with the diminishing supply of helium, shortages from vendors can occur, creating another potential cause for downtime. Rush ordering product due to unprepared supply can add thousands of extra dollars to the maintenance cost.