Update: Why is Helium for MRI Equipment Still in Short Supply?

Posted August 18, 2022 by Jeremy Probst

Among the current, rampant supply chain issues and worldwide resource shortages in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Europe, one particular substance has been a trailblazer in scarcity: helium.

Yes, helium, in spite of being among the most abundant elements in our universe, has been exceedingly difficult to procure at various times since the mid-20th century. With its burdensome history of supply issues, why is helium used in MRI machines? Primarily, the element has unique properties that, as of yet, cannot be replicated by another substance. Due to helium’s exceptional ability to maintain its liquid state at low temperatures without freezing—even as low as -452.11° Fahrenheit—it is the perfect substance for keeping an MRI machine’s superconducting magnets near the 0° mark to operate properly.

Because of its ideal qualities and cooling capabilities, it’s evident that access to helium is of great concern for healthcare organizations running MRI machines. The following overview will provide historical context to help make sense of the present helium insecurity.

A History of Helium Supply in the United States

English scientist Gustav Kirchoff and French scientist Pierre Janssen discovered helium in 1868, and during World War I the element became vital to American military tactics involving blimps. The Helium Act of 1925 established a Federal Helium Reserve. A 1960 amendment sought to stockpile U.S. helium, accruing roughly 28 billion cubic feet of the element by 1971, at which point the government sought to cease this initiative. With the military having long since favored airplanes over blimps, the Federal Helium Reserve was shut down in 1996 due to exorbitant costs. Yet by 2013, the facilities still remained in the property of the federal government, and a shortage of helium led to the Helium Stewardship Act that extended the reserve’s operations. Since, efforts to extract the government from the helium industry and entrust supplies of the element to private companies have yet to fully pass.

Although helium’s role has evolved, the element is vital enough to medical procedures that the government’s handling of helium is ongoing. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is less than 50 years old, yet it has already become such an important procedure that the state of the global helium supply—vital as it is to MRI machine operation—is a source of anxiety among healthcare organizations.

Yet Another Helium Shortage?

When we last checked, helium supply concerns were high. After all, since helium is a finite resource on Earth, it’s only right that we would be concerned about it; once we can no longer extract helium from the ground, production will end. It’s difficult to feel optimistic about our reliance on this limited noble gas.

However, another perspective may be in order—focusing on how we overcame previous shortages. The latest shortage is considered the fourth time the global helium supply has faced insecurity, which, based off these previous rebounds, implies helium stockpiles will indeed rise again.

Beyond these odds, while prior helium shortages pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Europe, these factors have contributed to the current disruption in helium production. As these exceptional circumstances are overcome, operations at existing and new helium plants are contributing to what gasworld considers grounds for “cautious optimism.”

Best MRI Practices for Helium Usage

Solutions to the helium shortage will continue to be sought. Whether a helium surplus is reestablished or not, we can be certain about a number of factors.

First, the economic reality is that helium prices have soared due to a confluence of demand, inflation, and the federal government’s steps to cede the helium supply to private companies, whereas they’d previously been able to hold prices in check.

Second—and especially in light of that first factor—the smartest usage of helium serves the machine safely and efficiently. Technical Prospects recommends more than ever that imaging engineers schedule helium fills for their MRI scanners well in advance, to ensure machines are filled with helium at least 60% full, maintaining proper image quality, and preventing loss of care to downtime.

As always, maintaining your organization’s Siemens MRI machines is of the utmost importance, and preventive maintenance will help keep costs down as helium prices rise. To facilitate smooth, reliable MRI scanning at your facility, Technical Prospects is your ideal partner for providing replacement parts for MRI scanners, 24/7 technical support for MRI machines, and the latest training for biomeds and imaging engineers—including how to check helium levels in MRI machines.

Contact us today to find out more about how you can partner with Technical Prospects. We’re proud to be a reliable resource to imaging engineers working diligently behind the scenes to keep equipment running.