Helium shortage raises concerns around MRIs

A shortage of liquid helium, a nonrenewable element that has been dwindling in supply, is worrying physicians because MRI machines require the ultra-cold material for its magnets, NBC News reported Oct. 22. 

The supply of helium has been strained for years, but geopolitical tensions are blowing up the problem. A new facility in eastern Russia was supposed to provide a third of the world's supply, but a fire last January caused delays, and current political strains because of the war in Ukraine have halted the U.S.' plans to acquire the helium, according to NBC News

Four out of 5 U.S. helium suppliers are rationing their product and prioritizing it for the healthcare industry. 

"Helium is on allocation for sure," Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier Health who contracts with helium suppliers for some 4,000 hospitals, told NBC News. "We're probably not blowing up balloons in the gift shop anymore."

At any time, every operating MRI holds about 2,000 liters of helium. 

Liquid helium, the coldest element on Earth, is invaluable for hospitals that use MRI scans to detect cancer, spinal cord injuries and liver diseases. MRIs run on magnetic fields and radio waves, and liquid helium is necessary to keep the magnetic current at an extremely cold temperature. 

"There's no alternative," Ms. Craft told NBC News. "Without helium, MRIs would have to shut down."

Medical devicemakers GE Healthcare and Siemens Healthineers are working on making MRIs, which typically use about 10,000 liters of liquid helium over a lifespan, that can run on less liquid helium. The technology is not widely available, though, according to NBC News

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