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New Technology from MR Solutions Could Mean that our Children can still have Helium Party Balloons in the Future

publication date: Aug 6, 2015
author/source: MR Solutions

Helium filled party balloons could be relegated to the past if the supply of helium dwindles, but MR Solutions, the world technology leader in preclinical MRI systems could be riding to the rescue with scanners that do not require liquid helium.

MR SolutionsLast month, anaesthetist, Dr Tom Dolphin of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors’ committee, called for a ban in using helium in balloons as there is a shortage for MRI scanners. British based MR Solutions produced the world's first commercial, superconducting, preclinical, MRI scanner in 2013 that does not require the traditional liquid helium cooling jacket.

Dr David Taylor, physicist and CEO of MR Solutions predicts that “within five years all new MRI scanners will be able to do away with the liquid helium jacket that keeps the superconducting magnet at four degrees above absolute zero - a chilly minus 269 degrees centigrade!

David continued, “We first developed a 3 Tesla (Tesla is the power of a magnet) in 2013. Today we are developing a 7T helium free scanner and it will only be a few years before we/the industry scales up to produce helium free clinical MRI scanners.”

This development has significant benefits for the scientific community as the global shortage of helium is today posing a risk for medical research projects across the world, with doctors calling for a halt in the use of helium party balloons.

David Taylor explained his new technology: "Following a number of years of research and development with our magnet partner, we have been able to dispense with the usual liquid helium cooling system by using a revolutionary magnet design incorporating superconducting wire. This enables the use of a standard low temperature fridge to cool the magnet to the required 4 degrees Kelvin (minus 269 degrees C). This has resulted in a scanner with improved performance, less costly to buy, lower running costs and no need for the building modification works which were required for the old bulky MRI systems.”

As the second most common element in the universe, why is there such a shortage? Helium needs to be extracted and collected when mining for natural gas. If it is not extracted it is simply vented into the atmosphere and because it is so light leaks out into space. Therefore companies mining for natural gas have to be motivated to extract and store the helium. 

In 1996 the US government started selling off its strategic holding of helium at low prices as it was no longer considered a strategic material. This led to an excess of cheap helium on the world market, resulting in an environment whereby oil companies were no longer incentivised to collect helium during the mining of natural gas. However with dwindling US supplies and few businesses capturing the gas there is now a real shortage.

Due to its party balloon heritage, the value of helium, the second most common element on Earth, is highly underestimated. However, this inert element with the lowest boiling point of any known substance has a number of uses ranging from party fun through to supporting the quest to identify the meaning of life as the large Hadron Collider at CERN uses helium to keep its many superconducting magnets cooled.

Professor Ray Dolan of University College London leads the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, which had to stop taking bookings for its scanner in 2012 because of helium shortages. “We have now had to invest in expensive helium-capture technology to recover some of what is burnt off,” he said, “and this decision was driven by a need to insulate ourselves against uncertainty over supply and cost.”

MR Solutions’ breakthrough helium free technology has revolutionised the world of preclinical MRI and hopefully will be scaled up to clinical systems so that children in the future will still be able to enjoy these colourful floating balloons.

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