If you've owned or operated an MRI machine for even just a few years of the last decade, you know that the cost per liter of liquid helium continues to rise to record high levels. And it's no surprise, considering helium is a high-value commodity.
As helium costs continue to rise, what is an accurate assumption to expect on your next helium bill? And what proactive steps can you take to mitigate helium costs now?
Below we'll cover why helium is essential for MRI machines, current state of the helium market, costs, and how to save money on your next helium fill.
Why Do MRI Machines Use Helium?
To put it simply: MRI machines use liquid helium to cool down its large magnet used while scanning.
The magnet in an MRI machine, along with it's coils, wires, and other components, require extremely low temperatures to work correctly. Liquid helium is the perfect element for this because it can reach temperatures close to absolute zero.
Without liquid helium, the MRI machine is unable to generate a strong magnetic field. This strong field is necessary for scanning, and without it, the quality of the images would be greatly reduced.
Do all MRI Machines Use Liquid Helium?
While most MRI machines use helium to keep their magnets cool, the race has been on among magnet manufacturers to dramatically reduce or even eliminate helium "burn" or "boil off" in MRI. Fortunately, there have been a number of successes in that endeavor. The technology exists to lower helium consumption. However, most systems in the field today do not operate at this level.
The demand for helium has never been higher than it is today. It is no surprise, considering a vast amount of industries rely on this element.
Liquid helium is often referred to as "liquid gold" by scientists, doctors, and medical field professionals. Because it is the coldest substance in the world, there is no substitute, and it is a non-renewable resource.
Domestically, we are seeing a significant shortage due to commitments with government contracts, high international demand, fewer new sources, and waste. This puts providers who supply the medical field in a bind for supply as they work to honor their existing customer contracts.
So, with helium in high demand but in short supply, how will prices continue to stay affected?
Current Helium Cost & Availability
In keeping with the laws of supply and demand, the tight helium supply is pushing the cost per liter upward. Presently, end users are seeing helium prices between $30-$50 per liter or more.
Now, your helium cost will depend on a few important factors:
- If/when you signed a helium agreement with a helium vendor
- How many systems you have under your agreement. Vendors may even give a bulk discount with multiple systems under one agreement
- How soon you need a helium fill
- How much helium you need. It's important to note extra fees may occur for “emergency fills” or for lower fill quantities (250L or less)
And, of course, the cost of a fill for your MRI scanner will greatly depend on the type of system you have and its average helium consumption.
Not to sound like a broken record, but again, with the current supply and demand for helium, it could take longer to receive a fill for your system. You may wait anywhere from 1-4 weeks depending on your location. With backfills and shortages, it is essential to monitor your MRIs helium levels and schedule a fill before you veer into the emergency territory.
Common examples of fill levels/percentages:
Below is a list of common MRI systems and their helium percentage that calls for a fill:
- GE Excite MRI: 58%
- Philips Intera MRI: 50%
- Siemens Symphony MRI: 60%
- Toshiba Vantage 1.5T: 55%
- Siemens Aera: 65%
For more on helium fill levels and boil-off rates, check out this blog: MRI HELIUM REFILLS AND BOIL-OFF RATES: THE TOP SIX MAGNETS
So, what do we do about the helium shortage?
While we cannot control the supply of helium in the world, or make the shortage go away, there are preventative maintenance steps you and your facility can take to limit the loss of helium on your MRI system. Here are our suggestions:
Preventative Maintenance: Remote Diagnostics or Regular Monitoring
Some service providers (Block Imaging among them) can install a remote diagnostic unit on your MRI scanner that monitors its helium level and notify you when it is dropping. These devices can help monitor other aspects of your system as well and offer a safety net against emerging equipment issues.
You can also delegate someone at your site to monitor your helium level at LEAST once weekly. Don’t wait for the low 50s to schedule your next refill. Remember that most MRI service contracts won’t cover a magnet quench due to negligence.
Staff should check on their chiller, and cold head for leaks regularly to avoid the dreaded MRI Quench.
Consider a Zero Boil-Off Magnet
Some MRIs are ‘zero boil off’. This doesn’t mean that they never boil-off helium but that if everything is functioning correctly, there should be no helium boil-off. Most systems, when everything is functioning correctly, can burn through 1-4% helium in a given month. So having a zero boil-off magnet should significantly reduce your helium costs.
How to Save Money on Your Next Helium Fill
Find a Partner
Some service providers, Block Imaging among them, have an international presence and long-term contractual agreements with Helium suppliers. These agreements allow these service providers to minimize price increases and pass the savings along to the MRI users they cover.
If your facility uses an older MRI scanner without the benefit of modern helium efficiency tech, these lower rates could save you upwards of $20,000 annually in helium costs.
If your facility is currently managing its own preventive maintenance and service calls on a time and materials basis, a service agreement could be a good option for you to add labor and parts coverage.
Choosing a partner for service and cryogen coverage can help you manage the peaks and valleys of helium costs. This, in turn:
- Reduces overall equipment lifecycle costs
- Increases ROI
- Provides better care for patients by reducing unexpected equipment downtime
Reduce Your Helium Consumption
As mentioned before, remote magnet monitoring is strongly recommended. This service offers the ability to catch an HVAC issue that would kick your compressor off over the weekend, identify when magnet pressure increases are causing increased boil-off, and monitor helium levels week over week. This kind of close attention greatly reduces the likelihood of excessive losses.
If you're operating an older-style magnet where excessive helium loss is inevitable, consider upgrading to a zero-boil-off or high-efficiency magnet. We can help you with that too.
Proactively Address Issues
Replacing your cold head before it flatlines and scheduling regular preventative maintenance on your chiller are game changers that save you the stress and panic of needing a repair.
Pay Attention and Plan Ahead
Consult your records to know what your expected monthly helium loss is. With this information in mind, you can respond more effectively when/if you see an increase in the boil-off.
If you have a new system coming online, proactively notify your helium provider.
Keep your provider updated regularly on the helium levels of your current magnet(s) too. This helps avoid needing an emergency fill.
With helium prices at their all-time high and an ongoing delta between supply and demand, now is a crucial time to stay on top of preventative maintenance tasks. But, you don't have to go it alone.
Navigating and mitigating these costs is far simpler and more effective when you enlist the help of a provider with standing relationships in the industry. Block Imaging is ready to help with all your MRI service needs. From helium fills, to replacement parts, and regular PM checks.
Contact the Block Imaging Service Team today to keep your MRI helium levels in check so you can continue serving patients.