homehealthcare NewsDoctors are worried as the world is running out of helium; here is why

Doctors are worried as the world is running out of helium; here is why

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By CNBCTV18.com Oct 31, 2022 1:38:15 PM IST (Published)

Liquid helium is important for the functioning of MRI machines and without helium, doctors would lose a critical medical tool.

A global helium shortage has doctors worried. Liquid helium, the coldest element on Earth, is needed to keep the MRI machines running and without it, doctors would lose a critical medical tool. As helium is a non-renewable resource, the Earth is certainly running out of it.

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Why is the world running out of helium?
Helium is the only element on the periodic table which is a non-renewable resource on Earth. As per an NPR News report, helium is generated deep underground through the natural radioactive decay of elements and it takes many, many millennia to form. The helium then seeps through the Earth’s crust and gets trapped in pockets of natural gas from where it can be extracted.
Since helium is lighter than air, it escapes the gas pockets out of the Earth’s atmosphere, unless stored properly.
Supply of helium
Until this year, the US and the world were counting on Russia to ease the helium supply. A new facility in eastern Russia was supposed to supply nearly one-third of the world’s helium, but a fire last January derailed the timeline. Even though the plant may start operations soon, the war in Ukraine has impacted the trade between countries affecting the supply.
Thus, in the US, the suppliers are rationing helium and reducing allotments to non-priority customers, as per an NBC News report.
Why are doctors worried?
Helium is necessary for the operations of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines. An MRI can’t function without some 2,000 litre of ultra-cold liquid helium that keeps its magnets cool enough to work. MRI is a critical medical tool since it provides high-resolution images that allow doctors to see details in organs, bones and tissue that don’t show up on X-rays.
To keep an MRI machine’s magnetic current superconductive, extreme cold is required. With a boiling point of minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, liquid helium is the coldest element on Earth which is pumped inside an MRI magnet to allow current to travel resistance-free.
“Helium has become a big concern, especially now with the geopolitical situation.” said Mahadevappa Mahesh, professor of radiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Baltimore, to NBC News.
So far, hospitals in the US haven’t cancelled patients’ MRIs or shut down machines. However, helium costs are rising at an alarming rate and without an end in sight for the helium shortage, the future of MRI remains uncertain.
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