Keeping An Eye on the Potential Shortage of Helium for MRIs

Awareness of the amount and usage of helium is important for future imaging

Scott Reeder
Mahadevappa Mahesh, MS, PhD
Mark Kelly, PhD

Despite news reports in October that the world is running out of helium, clinical MRI units throughout the U.S. were and remain unaffected.

“We are not in crisis mode and patient care has not been compromised,” said Scott Reeder, MD, chief of MRI at University of Wisconsin and president of the International Society for MR in Medicine. “Right now, the supply of helium is good, but we need to become more conscious of how we use this precious resource.”

Helium, one of the earth’s rarest elements, is naturally produced by the radioactive decay of uranium or thorium present in the earth’s crust. However, the process is very slow, hence the earth’s helium supply is finite and irreplaceable. Helium is essential to keep superconducting magnets in MR units cool enough to operate.

In early 2022, maintenance shutdowns at gas production centers in the U.S. and Qatar and fires at a new Russian facility disrupted the supply of helium. As a result, some academic research labs that need helium to cool MR spectroscopy, superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUID) and nuclear MR (NMR) devices were forced to temporarily shut down. Other labs had to pay a 30% premium for helium.

“Geopolitical factors, shipping and supply chain issues all affected the availability of helium over the summer,” said Mahadevappa Mahesh, MS, PhD, professor of radiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD.

Radiologists Consider the Potential for Recycling Helium

Helium is used in a multitude of industries, from space research to weather forecasting, but hospitals are the largest end users, accounting for 32% of the global market in 2021. An MRI unit requires approximately 2,000 liters of liquid helium to keep the magnet cool enough to operate. Additional refills may be required over the lifetime of the unit to replace helium that boils off and escapes into the atmosphere.

“The good news is that manufacturers have been putting helium reclamation units on all MRI scanners since the late 1990s,” Dr. Reeder said.

While not all existing MR units are currently recycling helium, Dr. Mahesh said, there’s an increasing urgency to install reclamation systems on both clinical and research equipment.

Mark Kelly, PhD, adjunct professor, school of pharmacy at the University of California San Francisco, said his lab’s high-resolution NMR units all recycle helium. 

“We recycle helium and we also made liquid helium for a clinical/research MEG scanner during the helium shortage,” Dr. Kelly said.

Although helium has been a volatile commodity for years, recent events have created a greater awareness that the supply of helium is finite and must be used judiciously.

“This is a wake-up call that we need longer-term, cogent strategies to access affordable helium,” Dr. Reeder said.

Manufacturers have already been working on the development of new MR scanners that require less or no helium. But this year’s supply disruption has prompted interest in new helium production centers in the U.S. and Canada, as well as a push to discourage the general use of helium in balloons. Different purity grades of helium are required for many of these different applications and helium qualified for medical need is likely never used in balloons.

“This issue helps bring to the forefront that we need to work together to ensure helium is not unnecessarily wasted and is consistently available for patient care,” Dr. Mahesh said.

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