Doctors are worried that running out of the element could threaten MRIs

A global helium shortage has doctors worried about one of the natural gas’s most essential and perhaps unexpected uses: MRIs.

Strange as it may sound, the lighter-than-air element that gives the balloons their buoyancy also powers the vital medical diagnostic machines. An MRI cannot function without about 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium to keep the magnets cool enough to function. But helium — a non-renewable element found deep in the Earth’s crust — is running out, leaving hospitals wondering how to plan for a future with far less supply.

“Helium has become a big problem,” said Mahadevappa Mahesh, a professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. “Especially now with the geopolitical situation.”

Helium has been a volatile commodity for years. This is especially true in the US, where a Texas-based federal helium reserve is dwindling as the government tries to transfer ownership to private markets.

Until this year, the US counted on Russia to ease the scarce supply. A huge new facility in eastern Russia was supposed to supply nearly a third of the world’s helium, but a fire last January derailed the timeline. Although the plant could resume operations any day, the war in Ukraine has mostly halted trade between the two countries.

Now four out of five major US helium suppliers ration the element, says Phil Kornbluth, CEO of Kornbluth Helium Consulting. These suppliers prioritize the healthcare industry by reducing helium allocations to less important customers.

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“Helium is definitely on the way,” said Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier Health, which contracts with helium suppliers for about 4,000 hospitals. “We probably don’t blow up balloons in the gift shop anymore.”

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Hospitals have not canceled patients’ MRIs or turned off machines yet. They’ve seen helium costs rise at an alarming rate, though — possibly up to 30%, Kornbluth guessed. But with no end in sight for the helium shortage, the future of MRI remains uncertain.

“An important commodity”

MRI, short for magnetic resonance imaging, has been a staple of healthcare since the 1980s. The massive machines provide high-resolution images that allow doctors to see details of organs, bones and tissues that may not be visible on X-rays.

“You get these sharp images and you can make out soft tissues,” said Dr. Scott Reeder, director of MRI at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “It’s central to many things we do in modern medicine.” MRI helps doctors diagnose brain tumors, strokes, spinal cord injuries, liver diseases and cancer. The 3D images, experts say, are irreplaceable.

Instead of relying on X-rays, which emit trace amounts of radiation to look inside the body, MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves. When someone lies still inside the tubular magnetic field, the body’s atoms align with strong magnetic currents. Pulses of radio waves then tell the machine’s sensors which tissues are where, and the machine reproduces its image.

MRI scanner at Altona Children's Hospital in Hamburg, Germany, Au,.  2022. (Marcus Brandt / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images file)

MRI scanner at Altona Children’s Hospital in Hamburg, Germany, Au,. 2022. (Marcus Brandt / dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images file)

Keeping an MRI’s magnetic current superconducting requires extreme cooling. That’s where helium comes in: With a boiling point of minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is the coldest element on Earth. Pumped inside an MRI magnet, the helium allows the current to travel without resistance.

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“Helium is how the magnet constantly exists,” Mahesh said. “It’s an important commodity.”

At any given time, an MRI machine contains about 2,000 liters of liquid helium, although suppliers must replenish any helium that boils off. Mahesh estimates that an MRI machine uses 10,000 liters of liquid helium over its lifetime. (According to GE Healthcare, a manufacturer of the machines, the lifespan is 12.8 years.) In 2015, there were roughly 12,000 machines in the United States, making MRI one of the largest consumers of helium in the world, far exceeding balloon supplies.

However, spectators have an estimated 400,000 cubic feet of helium to thank for suspending all the tractor-sized balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Converted to liquid form, that helium would only keep about two MRI machines running over its lifetime.

No quick fix

The problem is that no other element is cold enough for MRI. “There is no alternative,” said Craft, of Premier Health. “Without helium, the MRI would have to be shut down.”

Manufacturers such as GE Healthcare and Siemens Healthineers recognize this vulnerability. “We are concerned about the shortage in the helium market,” said Ioannis Panagiotelis, director of MRI marketing at GE. “Every industry and hospital with an MRI system has been affected.”

GE and Siemens are both developing MRIs that require less liquid helium. Siemens recently introduced one that requires just 0.7 liters, and according to Panagiotelis, GE rolled out a machine that is “1.4 times more efficient than previous models.” However, these technologies are not widely available, and replacing the nation’s 12,000 MRI machines — each weighing up to 50,000 pounds — is anything but a quick fix. Meanwhile, hospitals continue to install additional conventional MRI machines to meet the demand for diagnostic scans.

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“The concern is that the shortage will become so acute that we can’t install new scanners,” Reeder said. The University of Wisconsin, he said, has plans to open a new cancer center with two MRIs. “When we install these systems, what will happen if there is no helium?”

Mahesh said Johns Hopkins is also adding another MRI to its fleet, and it will be the same “workhorse scanner” as its 22 other machines.

As doctors fear possible worst-case scenarios, scientists using liquid helium for research are already there. When suppliers began rationing this summer, Harvard University physicists Amir Yacoby and Philip Kim shut down about half of their lab projects. On the opposite side of the country, the University of California, Davis reported that one of its helium suppliers cut funding in half, including for medical use.

“The shortage motivates us to find ways to do the same experiment without liquid helium,” Yacoby said. The forced innovation may preview what’s to come for MRI, and it may be necessary, shortage or no shortage.

“There is only a limited amount of helium in the Earth’s crust,” Kim said. “Once it evaporates, it disappears completely into space.”

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