Helium is found in much more than just balloons and the periodic table of elements. Arguably the “coolest” medical imaging technology today, MRI machines use superconducting magnets cooled to -452 degrees F in order to take hi-def pictures of a patient’s brain, vital organs, or soft tissue. The only way to keep magnets that cold is by using 2,000 liters of liquid helium mined from below the earth’s crust.
Lab Invaders LIVE, a new series that sneaks us inside the minds and machines shaping health and medicine, premiers on Facebook Tuesday November 29 at Noon ET / 5pm GMT, from the depths of a magnet factory where a group of cryogenics experts are using liquid helium to build machines that help doctors and patients everywhere. Here’s 7 stats you may or may not have known about this supercool gas and what we might see in from inside the lab on Tuesday.
1. Helium is used in telescopes, spacecrafts and radiation monitors. In the medical world, helium is essential to operate MRI machines. This is a magnet in GE Healthcare’s factory in Florence, South Carolina, where Lab Invaders will broadcast from live.
2. Tremendous amounts of energy flow through the superconducting wire throughout the key component of an MRI system, a powerful magnet cooled to 4.2 kelvin, or 452 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Liquid helium is the only element that is able to cool a magnet to the degree where the superconducting properties of the wire can work. This is what helium looks like when it freezes in the lab.
3. Unfortunately, over the past two decades there have been potential helium shortage crises that impacted hospitals and patients around the globe. Remember, helium is THE ONLY element on EARTH that can cool a magnet to the degree needed to make an MRI machine. Here we see a cryogenics expert “topping off” a magnet in the factory so no more helium can escape – the white gas is the last little bit that managed to get away.
5. The U.S. Geological survey estimates that there are about 35 billion cubic meters worth of helium left on the planet with the majority of it coming from the U.S. Earlier this year, researchers discovered large quantities of helium in the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, which could help the challenge in the short term.
6. Liquefaction is a process used to recapture helium lost during the MRI manufacturing process so it can be reused—it’s essentially a major recycling system. GE Healthcare built a new 5,000-square-foot helium liquefaction facility in Florence, South Carolina to further liquefaction efforts.
7. Helium is high-flying awesome. And there are also efforts underway to develop innovative ways to reduce MRI manufacturers’ reliance on this element so we can set it free.