How Helium is Used with MRI Machines

Helium is an element in the noble gas category that serves many purposes in various industries including the medical field. In fact, one of the most common uses of helium is in MRI machines.

What Is an MRI Machine

A magnetic resonance imaging, more commonly known as an MRI, machine is a device that uses a combination of radio waves and a magnetic field to view internal images of the body. The magnetic field and radio waves create detailed images of different organs and tissue. It’s a noninvasive procedure used to produce high-resolution imagery for diagnostic purposes, in particular of the tissue, organs and skeleton. MRI machines assist physicians in determining the origin of a seizure, the presence of a tumor or the damage done by a heart attack, just to name a few instances.

How Does An MRI Machine Work

A majority of MRI machines used consist of a large, tube-shaped magnet, which patients must lay down in on a moveable table. While inside of the machine, the magnetic field alters the alignment of the hydrogen atoms inside the body. Radio waves then stimulate the atoms to create signals that produce an image. They create cross-sectional images. They’re even capable of producing 3-D images and allow medical professionals to view the image at various angles.

How Does An MRI Machine Use Helium 

An MRI machine contains coils, a magnet and wires that conduct current. The machine uses a great deal of energy because of its large magnetic field. In order for it to use that much energy, it must be super conductive. For this to occur, wires inside the machine need to be reduced to a temperature of near zero degrees. The machine requires a substance in order for it to maintain a cold temperature, and that substance is liquid helium. The wires continuously are doused with liquid helium. The fluid has a temperature of -269.1 degrees Celsius, which is the equivalent of -452.11 Fahrenheit. The average MRI machine utilizes 1,700 liters of helium. A standard 18″ balloon requires about .1 oz of helium, and the machine uses about 56,100 oz to give you a mental picture of how much helium that is. The amount of helium in the scanner must be topped off on a regular basis, which increases the amount of helium used by the machine even further.

Unfortunately, the amount of helium on earth is diminishing due to its heavy usage, and it floating away. There isn’t much of it on earth because it’s not weighed down to the atmosphere. It’s slowly, but continuously, floating off into space. The noble gas is unable to be synthesized and is usually made through natural radioactive decay. Once the helium is gone, it’s gone forever because it’s a nonrenewable resource. The medical field requires a large quantity of helium to assist patients with diagnosing and monitoring their condition, which is by far a vital and valued use.