Just as life without technology is unimaginable – it is also hard to imagine life without helium. With the latest scare of helium gas running out within 30 years, it’s not just clowns that are painting on their most worried look, even doctors and patients have some worrying to do. In the medical world, helium is most commonly used for MRI machines; and with a reduction in the availability of helium, hospitals, imaging centers, and OEMs are certainly paying a higher price for helium; and, in time, may need to limit access for patients to obtain an MRI altogether.
Most are familiar with helium being used for balloons and squeaky voices. But the shortage of helium doesn’t just mean weekends without floating balloons and some extra giggles; this helium crisis could have major repercussions for science, technology, and even medical advances including early detection of diseases.
Each year, millions of liters of liquid helium are used in the production and maintenance of MRIs. A powerful magnet is the most important component of an MRI, and this requires large doses of helium to keep it cold enough in order for the machine to work. Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare says that helium is absolutely essential to MRI production, and is currently the only element on our planet that can effectively keep the magnet cold enough.
In fact, there are currently no known replacements or alternatives for MR Imaging. So before we take a deep breath of helium for fun and continue making clown jokes, we should certainly take this issue seriously as it requires a call for action. The helium crisis could mean a lot of changes for a lot of people down the road.
What’s going on?
Now that our helium-rich country is experiencing a helium crisis, it is driving up costs around the world. While pointing fingers does not solve problems, we’re going to point just a little to give some background on the problem.
It is widely believed that the root cause of this scarcity stems from the 1996 Helium Privatization Act passed by the government to sell off the strategic reserve of helium for a low price. The idea was that by 2015 the government can then step away from the helium business giving way to new sources of helium to be readily available for the high demand. Unfortunately that has not happened yet. Moreover, as purchasers became accustomed to buy for much less than its market value, it also makes the precious gas too cheap to recycle.
The recent helium scare has also been triggered by the temporary shutdown of helium plants. In some cases, these shutdowns have reduced timely allocation from private companies to their customers, resulting in higher wait times…which is not good news for those who need a scan.
What can we do?
Although imaging centers are still operating smoothly and circus tents are still standing, helium shortage is a looming problem that is not getting better.
The party industry is cutting down on helium usage up to 80% from its previous year. Even major companies such as GE are making an effort to conserve as much helium as possible during the manufacturing process. However, until we think forward to find a powerful alternative, MRI machines still require thousands of liters of helium to fully operate. So in addition to the conventional methods of reducing and reusing, replacing is the next hope for solving this crisis.
In the mean time, for those purchasing equipment, be sure to put your MRI scanner under a service contract. As many helium providers do not offer one-time fills for customers without a signed cryogen contract, this is definitely an added benefit. Service contracts can also help strategize your business with the continuous monitoring of your helium and scheduled fills. To learn more about a service contract or other information about the industry, contact one of our Amber Diagnostics representatives.