The world is running out of helium. Why doctors are worried

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NBC News reports:

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

Strange as it may seem, the lighter-than-air element that gives balloons their buoyancy also powers vital medical diagnostic machinery. An MRI cannot operate without some 2,000 liters of ultra-cold liquid helium keeping its magnets cool enough to operate. 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 a much scarcer supply…. [F]our top five U.S. helium suppliers are rationing the element, said Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting. These providers are prioritizing the healthcare sector by reducing helium allocations to less essential customers.

Hospitals have yet to cancel patient MRIs or shut down the machines. They have, however, seen helium costs rise at an alarming rate – possibly as much as 30%, guessed Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting. But with no end in sight for the helium shortage, the future of MRI remains uncertain… The problem is that no other element is cold enough for MRI. “There is no alternative,” said Donna Craft, regional construction manager for Premier Inc., which contracts helium suppliers for some 4,000 hospitals. “Without helium, MRIs should stop…”

GE and Siemens are both developing MRIs that require less liquid helium. Siemens recently introduced one requiring only 0.7 liters and, according to Panagiotelis, GE has rolled out a machine “1.4 times more efficient than previous models”. These technologies are not widely available, however, and replacing the country’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 scanners to meet the demand for diagnostic exams.
The article notes that some scientists are already stopping research projects that require helium.

Thanks to long-time Slashdot reader Wildbear for submitting the article!

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