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The future of helium and what it means for MR

by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter | April 07, 2023
MRI
An MR system requires approximately 2,000 liters of liquid helium to keep the magnet cool and superconductive for imaging patients. When supply chain issues disrupt access to helium, it sends the price up and puts hospitals and imaging centers in a precarious position.

Geopolitical events like the war in Ukraine, as well as climate change, privatization of helium reserves, and a rise in demand have done just this, straining budgets for hospitals, the largest end-users in the market, which are already in the red from years of declining margins and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of these circumstances, the U.S. federal government signaled in January that it might be rethinking the previously planned sale of the Federal Helium Reserve, an underground structure that provides about 40% of the world’s helium.
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But conserving helium requires providers to make changes as well and step up to the plate with strategies of their own, says Dr. Scott Reeder, a radiologist and chief of MRI at UW Health, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and president of the International Society for MR in Medicine.

“Ensuring a reliable, predictable and sustainable supply for helium is essential to ensure that the healthcare sector can continue to provide access to MR services,” he told HCB News.

Inflating prices
With a boiling point of -452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is the coldest element on earth and must remain at that temperature to keep MR scanners operating. Any leaks, such as those caused by faulty or damaged components like coldheads and chillers, lead to costly repairs and replacement helium.

“The prices of helium in many cases have doubled since January 2022," helium consultant Phil Kornbluth told NBC News earlier this year. "Contract prices have increased 50 to 100%, in some cases, even more.”

The situation has been exacerbated by unplanned helium plant shutdowns over the last few years in the U.S., Russia and Quatar, all three of which are among the largest suppliers worldwide. U.S. sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have also limited distribution, with countries outside of Russia taking on more of the demand, even with heavily depleted sources.

These supply chain disruptions have led some academic research labs to temporarily shut down their MR spectroscopy and MR nuclear systems, while others have had to pay a 30% premium for helium to keep their scanners operational, according to the Radiological Society of North America.

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