Helium is becoming scarce in the world. Here’s why physicians are concerned.


Doctors are concerned about one of the most crucial—and possibly unexpected—applications of natural gas due to a worldwide helium shortage: MRIs.

As odd as it may sound, the same substance that gives balloons their buoyancy also fuels the essential diagnostic tools in medicine. Without 2,000 liters of extremely cold liquid helium to keep its magnets cool enough to operate, an MRI is unable to perform. Helium, a nonrenewable material located deep under the Earth’s crust, is running out, and hospitals are unsure of how to prepare for a time when supplies would be considerably more scarce.

According to Mahadevappa Mahesh, a radiology professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Baltimore, helium has grown to be a major worry. “Especially with the geopolitical environment as it is now.”

For many years, helium has been an unstable commodity. This is particularly true in the United States, where a federal helium reserve centered in Texas is shrinking as the government attempts to transfer ownership to private markets.

The United States has been relying on Russia to increase the supply until this year. A fire last January delayed the supply of about one-third of the world’s helium from a massive new facility in eastern Russia. Even though the facility might start up again at any moment, the conflict in Ukraine has mostly halted trade between the two nations.

According to Phil Kornbluth, president of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, four out of the top five helium providers in the United States are currently restricting the gas. By cutting back on helium allocations to less important clients, these suppliers are giving the healthcare sector priority.

Helium is definitely allocated, according to Donna Craft, a regional construction manager for Premier Health who negotiates helium supply deals on behalf of the organization’s 4,000 hospitals. Probably no longer do we blow up balloons in the gift shop.

MRIs for patients have not yet been postponed or machines shut down by hospitals. However, helium prices have been rising at an alarming rate – Kornbluth said it may be up to 30%. The future of MRI is still questionable, though, because there is no end in sight to the helium scarcity.

A necessary commodity

Since the 1980s, magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, has been a mainstay of medical care. The enormous devices offer high-resolution images that let surgeons examine organs, bones, and tissue in depth that X-rays might be unable to reveal.

The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s chief of MRI, Dr. Scott Reeder, noted that while using MRI, “you get these clear images and you can discern soft tissues.” It is essential to a lot of what we do in contemporary medicine. MRIs aid in the diagnosis of cancer, liver illnesses, spinal cord injuries, brain tumors, and strokes. Experts claim that the 3D photos are priceless.

MRIs use magnetic fields and radio waves in place of X-rays, which look into the body while emitting minute amounts of radiation. Strong magnetic currents align the atoms of a person’s body when they are motionless and inside the tube-shaped magnetic field. The system then renders its image after receiving information from radio wave pulses about which tissues are where on the body.

Extreme cold is necessary to maintain a superconductive magnetic current in an MRI. In this situation, helium is useful: Liquid helium is the coldest element on Earth, with a boiling point of minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit. Helium is pumped within an MRI magnet, allowing the current to flow without resistance.

Mahesh added, “Helium is how the magnet continues to exist.” “It is a necessary good.”

Approximately 2,000 liters of liquid helium are always present in an MRI machine, but any helium that boils off must be replaced by suppliers. Mahesh estimates claims that during the course of its lifetime, an MRI machine utilizes 10,000 liters of liquid helium. (GE Healthcare, a company that makes the equipment, claims that life span is 12.8 years.) With almost 12,000 machines in the country in 2015, MRIs surpassed balloon shops as the largest helium consumers worldwide.

In contrast, the helium that kept the tractor-trailer-sized balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade suspended took up an estimated 400,000 cubic feet. Converted to liquid form, that amount of helium would only be enough to power two MRIs for the duration of their lives.


No other element is cold enough for the MRI, which is the issue. There is no other option, according to Premier Health’s Craft. “MRIs would have to stop operating without helium.”

This risk is understood by producers like GE Healthcare and Siemens Healthineers. MRI at GE Chief Marketing Officer Ioannis Panagiotelis expressed concern regarding helium market constraints. Every sector of the economy and hospital that uses an MR system has been impacted.

Both GE and Siemens are working on MRIs that use less liquid helium. Siemens just released one that only needs 0.7 liters of fuel, and GE recently unveiled a machine that is “1.4 times more efficient than earlier models,” according to Panagiotelis. However, access to these technologies is limited, and replacing the nation’s 12,000 MRI scanners, each weighing up to 50,000 pounds, is not a simple solution. In the meantime, hospitals continue to add more traditional MRI machines to keep up with demand for diagnostic scans.

The issue is that if the shortage worsens, we won’t be able to install new scanners, according to Reeder. He stated that a new cancer center with two MRIs is scheduled to open at the University of Wisconsin. What will happen if there isn’t helium when we install those systems?

According to Mahesh, Johns Hopkins is also acquiring another MRI for its fleet; this one will function as the same “workhorse scanner” as the other 22 devices.

Although scientists who utilize liquid helium for research fear the worst-case scenarios, clinicians are already there. Amir Yacoby and Philip Kim, two Harvard University physicists, had to halt around half of their lab’s work this summer when suppliers started limiting. The University of California, Davis reported that one of its helium suppliers slashed allocations by half, even for medical purposes, is located on the other side of the nation.

We are trying to devise alternatives to conduct the same research without the liquid helium because of the shortage, Yacoby said. Whether there is a scarcity or not, the forced innovation may be a foreshadowing of what is to come for MRIs.

The helium in the Earth’s crust is limited, according to Kim. “It is utterly lost in space after it melts off.”
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