GE Healthcare’s Optima MR450w with GEM System
The world’s supply of helium may be getting low. And that matters. Perhaps best known for inflating party balloons and enabling silly high-pitched voices, helium is also critical in several industrial and scientific processes. From hi-tech microchip manufacturing and space exploration to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) medical technology, helium plays an often unseen yet vital role in many everyday things. It’s for more than just balloons!
One-third of the world’s helium supply is now found at the U.S. Federal Reserve in Texas, which has been supplying the private sector with helium ever since the enactment of the Helium Privatization Act in 1996. The Act is set to expire with vast amounts of crude helium left in the reserve and nothing to fill the market void in the near future.
The U.S. Congress has begun to look at the issue now that there is an increasingly real possibility of a helium supply shortage in the near future. Introduced earlier this year, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 seeks to continue leveraging government helium and, going forward, make the global helium supply more stable and predictable.
Following a U.S. Senate Committee hearing on the topic in May of 2012, the U.S. House Natural Resources, Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee is now discussing the Helium Stewardship Act as well. GE is set to testify again on the need for stability in the helium market.
In both his U.S. Senate and House testimonies, GE Healthcare’s Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for services and aftermarket solutions, makes the argument that it’s hard to over-inflate the importance of helium to the medical imaging manufacturing industry and the health care economy, but most of all to the patients who need access to MRI to diagnose stroke, tumors and other diseases.
Helium & MRI
Every hour, over 8,000 patients around the world undergo an MRI exam. A grandfather could have his stroke diagnosed; a multiple sclerosis patient could learn if the disease is advancing; and a college athlete could get a second opinion on a torn ACL.
MRI technology is only 30 years old, and it offers real-time internal imaging with optimal contrast resolution between areas of anatomy. For example, MRI is especially effective for imaging soft tissues like the brain, spine, liver, kidneys, as well as, increasingly, the breast and joints.
“Helium is absolutely essential to MRI production,” Mr. Rauch explains. “It’s currently the only element on earth that can effectively keep an MRI magnet at a necessary, and extremely cold, operating temperature – more than 440 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. As such, an MRI system needs up to 10,000 liters of helium stored in a sealed vacuum system surrounding the magnet.”
GE Healthcare uses roughly 5.5 million liters of helium a year at its South Carolina production facility, and dedicates another six million liters per year servicing MRI systems at hospitals and other sites across the United States. Increased demand and tightening supply have led GE to invest $1 million in boosting helium efficiency – including proprietary conservation technologies and helium recycling and re-use methods. As well, researchers at GE’s Global Research Centers – looking to a near future where the demand for helium could fast outpace supply – are currently exploring the feasibility of new magnet designs that minimize the amount of helium needed in MRI production.