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Hunt is on for helium; rising cost has some hospitals turning to new MRI models

Most magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines require giant quantities of helium to supply their diagnostic photos. However as helium turns into more and more exhausting to acquire, with once-plentiful sources in america drying up and the world’s most promising new supply positioned behind a global embargo, increasingly hospitals are turning to fashions that use much less of the broadly recognized however little understood gasoline.

Helium could also be most acquainted via its use in celebration balloons, however that’s solely a minor industrial utility. Hospitals have been the biggest finish customers of helium within the U.S., making up roughly 20 per cent of the market, says Phil Kornbluth, director of Kornbluth Helium Consulting in Bridgewater, N.J.

Helium is mostly discovered as a element of pure gasoline, from which it’s crudely separated at pure gasoline processing crops earlier than being purified at helium crops. However in January, there was a pure gasoline leak at one of many largest helium crops within the U.S., the Cliffside Crude Helium Enrichment Unit close to Amarillo, Tex.

“If somebody had lit a match, the power wouldn’t be right here anymore,” says Wealthy Gottwald, the president of the Compressed Fuel Affiliation, a commerce affiliation for industrial gases, together with helium. “It was actually lucky that it wasn’t an explosion.”

The Cliffside facility was shut down; approval to restart it solely got here on the finish of Might. This additionally minimize off entry to the U.S.’s Nationwide Helium Reserve, an virtually 700 km-long underground pipeline that runs northeast from Amarillo via Oklahoma to Bushton, Kan. Kornbluth likens the Nationwide Helium Reserve to an ATM for helium, wherein the U.S. authorities and varied non-public corporations can inject or withdraw purified (or “enriched”) helium at meters alongside the pipeline.

The Nationwide Helium Reserve as soon as saved many years’ price of helium, however right now it solely has sufficient to match roughly one 12 months of home demand, or a 3rd of a 12 months of worldwide demand.

Canada and the U.S. can’t make up for the helium shortfall just by producing helium at different pure gasoline wells as a result of not each effectively incorporates helium. The plant had already been taken down for upkeep a number of occasions in 2021.

“It didn’t create a full-scale, industry-wide scarcity as a result of of us thought it was short-term and in addition a big new provide from Russia was supposed to begin up late final 12 months,” says Kornbluth.

This new provider was the Amur gasoline processing plant, operated in Russia’s Far East by Gazprom, Russia’s largest firm. Amur began producing helium final September, however was hit by a hearth throughout scheduled upkeep in early October. An additional explosion this January once more postponed resumption.

That is the fourth time that helium provide has been restricted since 2006, and every time, costs have surged.

The battle in Ukraine, and the pull-out of western corporations from Russia, possible will push the scheduled restart date from late 2022 to someday in 2023, Kornbluth says.

“It’s grow to be principally not possible for international consultants to journey to Amur to evaluate the harm and assist work out what must be repaired,” says Kornbluth. “Tools from Europe and the U.S. (wants) to get replaced … to get the plant again into operation. That could be impacted or delayed by the sanctions.”

That is the fourth time that helium provide has been restricted since 2006, and every time, costs have surged. Costs doubled between 2011 and 2013; fell by roughly 25 per cent between 2014 and 2017 when there was extra provide; after which doubled once more between 2018 and early 2020, when COVID-19 curtailed demand for helium.

MRI machines can’t perform with out helium. The photographs present variations in how hydrogen atoms in several molecules and totally different bodily tissues and environments work together with a magnetic area. A stronger magnetic area produces a sharper picture, and the strongest magnets acceptable for MRI machines are superconducting magnets, produced by sending giant volumes of present via a fabric that has misplaced all of its electrical resistance.

However to lose all of its electrical resistance, the magnet should be cooled to extraordinarily low temperatures – under no less than -255 C, colder than the moon at evening. Helium, which has a boiling level of -269 C, is used to succeed in these temperatures; as liquid helium at these low temperatures evaporates, it sucks warmth away from the magnet, bringing down its temperature. Different, extra readily-available gases, resembling nitrogen and oxygen, have increased boiling factors and don’t cool the magnets chilly sufficient.

Hospitals have nonetheless been capable of receive helium as a result of suppliers prioritize them earlier than celebration balloon shops. However the rising prices and issue of sourcing helium have led to the event of recent MRI machines that use considerably much less helium.

The Dutch electrical tools maker Philips has produced a machine that requires seven litres of liquid helium as a substitute of the 1,500 litres required by a standard MRI machine. Moreover, these seven litres of helium are sealed throughout the machine and can’t escape. A conventional MRI machine will not be totally sealed and there may be all the time some lack of helium into the ambiance via evaporation. Greater than 500 such machines have been offered since 2018, says Arjen Radder, normal supervisor of MRI at Philips, together with a number of in Ontario and Quebec.

Conventional MRI machines are heavy and are thus often positioned within the basement or on a strengthened ground of a hospital. Additionally they require pipes venting out of the hospital to make sure that the helium can escape in case all the liquid rapidly evaporates and expands into the gaseous type. These pipes are not required with the smaller machines.

U.S. conglomerate Basic Electrical has additionally achieved work on low-helium MRI know-how, and China’s Wandong Medical Know-how claims to have developed a helium-free MRI machine.

Nonetheless, conventional MRI machines nonetheless make up the overwhelming majority of MRI machines offered every year. Donations of outdated machines to growing nations signifies that helium will nonetheless be wanted for medical purposes for years to come back.

The hunt for brand new helium sources is on. Some corporations are exploring for “inexperienced helium,” the place the helium underground is usually not blended with pure gasoline however with nitrogen (the primary element of air); excessive helium costs imply that that is worthwhile, even with out promoting off a stream of pure gasoline. Extraction of inexperienced helium is already happening in Alberta and Saskatchewan, although it makes up lower than 5 per cent of the market.

The worst of the present helium scarcity could also be already over, says Kornbluth, however the years of plentiful helium provide promised by Gazprom’s Azur plant look to be a way off.

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