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The Global Helium Shortage and How it Affects Medical Imaging

Have you recently filled a helium balloon for a birthday party and been shocked at the cost? Many of us at Hyperfine have years of experience working in the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) industry. Being intimately familiar with the requirements for cryogen-based cooling systems (i.e., helium-based cooling) used in conventional high-field MRI installations, we decided to look at the impact of the global helium shortage on MRI-based imaging.

With helium’s unique thermal conductivity properties (a boiling point of -452 degrees Fahrenheit), this rare and non-renewable substance has become a vital commodity required for cooling superconducting magnets in many high-field MRI systems. In 2019, experts estimated the costs of helium to run an MRI system to be upwards of $39,000. With the doubling of costs and the declining availability of helium in recent times, the current and future impact on a hospital’s bottom line (not to mention their quality of care) is easy to imagine—especially considering that a single high-field MRI system can require thousands of liters of gas annually per machine.

“According to a study by NEMA, MRI machines require 7,000 tons of helium every year. In other words, roughly 27% of the United State’s helium reserves are allocated to MRI machine use every year.” [source]

Further, the helium shortage has the potential to drastically impact resource-limited settings (such as sub-Saharan Africa) where accessibility to MRI was already challenging enough.

As the helium shortage worsens, high-field MRI systems designed to capture and recycle helium have a perceived advantage. However, such systems still require the same or similar infrastructure requirements as cryogen-based MRI systems. In short, they are expensive to implement and require a dedicated, shielded, controlled space and a resource-intensive and time-consuming deployment and installation. An alternative approach uses permanent magnets that require no helium. Such scanners, typically described as low-field MR scanners, generally operate in the range of 0.2–0.5 T. These low-field scanners, while offering the advantage of being cryogen-free, still require significant infrastructure investment.

Our solution is an ultra-low-field 0.064 T permanent magnet MRI system that requires no helium or other cryogens. The Hyperfine Swoop® Portable MR Imaging System additionally offers the benefits of hardly any infrastructure costs and relatively simple deployment with few installation delays. The Swoop system’s portability and cryogen-free design provide MR imaging wherever a standard electrical outlet is available. This unique combination of attributes brings MR neuroimaging capabilities to places never before possible, such as inside ICUs and ERs (to aid physicians in diagnosing and monitoring acute conditions) and locations such as remote, resource-limited settings.

We invite you to learn more about these and other benefits of the Hyperfine Swoop Portable MR Imaging System.

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