With gas shortages looming, Philips inks magnet research pact to make MRI scanners helium-free

With a worldwide helium shortage on the horizon, a lack of the element could bring about more serious problems than the loss of party balloons. In its liquid form, helium coolant is essential for MRI machines.

For years, imaging giant Philips has been hunting for a more sustainable approach. Now, the company has signed up for a partnership with U.S. magnet hardware provider MagCorp, which has its own relationships with researchers at the National Science Foundation-funded National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, headquartered at Florida State University (FSU).

The magnets that power MRI scanners need to be brought down to supercool temperatures: around -269 degrees Celsius or -452 degrees Fahrenheit, or just a few Kelvin shy of absolute zero. This allows electric currents to flow through them and generate the high-strength fields necessary without creating excess heat.

Traditional MRI machines require more than 1,500 liters of liquid helium to run their superconductive magnets, with periodic refills to replace any gasses vented into the atmosphere. And, being lighter than air, that means that any lost helium eventually drifts up into outer space.

Together, Philips, MagCorp and FSU’s MagLab will explore alternatives to today’s helium-cooled magnets, including ones that do not need to be brought down to ultralow temperatures at all. 

The healthcare industry is the world’s largest helium buyer, claiming around 30% of the total. Philips estimates there are about 50,000 helium-cooled MRI scanners in use globally.

But by operating closer to room temperature, MRI scanners could decrease their size, weight and total energy consumption—as well as eliminate their dependence on an element that’s extracted from deep within Earth’s crust as part of drilling for natural gas.

Philips first introduced its line of fully enclosed magnets in 2018, with what it calls BlueSeal technology. During manufacturing, the magnet is charged with only 7 liters of liquid helium before being sealed off completely for their operational life span, with no refills or venting.

According to the company, with nearly 600 units installed worldwide, BlueSeal scanners have saved more than 1 million liters of liquid helium since launch. The system can weigh 900 kilograms less than traditional systems.

The new research partnership will also explore superconducting materials that could perform better than today’s conventional MRI magnets made out of niobium, another scarce element.

Higher-temperature superconductors would lead to a complete shift toward end-to-end helium independence, the company said in its announcement, and potentially help expand access to MRI scanners among underserved communities by making the machines cheaper to use and maintain.