How innovations in MRI sustainability and accessibility are reshaping healthcare systems globally.

By Atul Gupta, MD 

Each year an estimated 100 million of us worldwide have an MRI scan, on our hips, our knees, our shoulders, or brain.But liquid helium – which is the only element that can cool the powerful magnets that drive those MRI machines – just got much harder to source. In the face of geopolitical instability, healthcare leaders globally have faced serious supply chain challenges. And then in January, raising further concerns, the U.S. government sold its own Federal Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas, which provides around 30% of the country’s helium.

That’s a massive challenge for all of us – not just for physicians like me, but for anyone who urgently needs diagnostic care. And it’s only getting worse. The healthcare industry uses 20% of all the liquid helium on earth. One of the challenges with MRI machines is how much of the element they use: You can power only two traditional MRIs with the helium from all the balloons in New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And there’s only a finite amount of the element on Earth – it’s non-renewable. 

The Path to Helium-Free MRI Operations

The question is whether there’s a way to reduce our need for precious resources in the first place: How can we keep these MRI machines going—and even increase access to care for more people in more places—while reducing our environmental demands on the planet? Easier said than done. After all, helium has been a critical part of scanners for almost 50 years, ever since the first MRI scan in 1977.   

It’s something that scientists at Philips have been thinking about for more than a decade— when they set themselves a challenge to hit the reset button on helium. And five years ago, they came up with an innovation that’s now proving to be remarkably prescient.

The solution was to radically reduce the amount of helium needed. Then make sure that it’s sealed into the machine. 

Why sealed? Because in an emergency—if something metal gets stuck in the scanner, for example—the powerful magnetic field in an MRI needs to be shut down. To do so, all that liquid helium is instantly released. It’s converted to a gas and vented into the atmosphere in a process called quenching. And when that happens, it can take days or even longer to get the MRI back up and scanning patients. Then all the helium must be replaced. 

It’s a huge waste of a vital resource, and an even bigger waste of time. Imagine you’re waiting for a medical scan and suddenly it’s delayed, or even cancelled. Or you’re a radiologist running an MRI in a remote location, where it could take a week or more to get back to making life-saving diagnoses.  

Today, we can lock in that helium. But even more important, the industry has developed innovative technology called BlueSeal to use a fraction of it in the first place: less than 1% of traditional scanners. Now we can cool the magnets with just 7 liters of liquid helium, instead of 1,500. That means the scanners are much lighter, too. 

This matters because it means we can bring care to more people around the world. If you’ve ever had an MRI, you probably went to the ground floor of a large hospital. That’s because these machines are so heavy, they need strong foundations and big venting pipes for quenching. But today, we can put a much lighter, fully sealed MRI in places where it was previously impossible, including on the top floor of a skyscraper, in a remote village or on an island, and even in an earthquake zone. 

“In the event of a major disaster like an earthquake we get the machine up and running again relatively quickly, making them excellent from the perspective of hospital risk management,” says Professor Hashimoto from Japan’s Tokai University Hospital. “We believe that magnets with helium-free operations will play an important role in the reliable and sustainable operations of hospitals in the future.”

Advancing MRI Sustainability and Accessibility 

In fact, they’re already helping. BlueSeal technology has already saved our planet nearly 2 million liters of liquid helium since 2018. Over 1,000 systems have already been installed by forward-thinking hospitals around the world, helping them minimize disruptions in care and reduce their environmental impact, all while maintaining the same scanning quality as traditional MRIs. And as of late last year, we can put these MRIs in a truck—bringing care to even more people. 

Saving liquid helium is just one part of a huge puzzle faced by healthcare leaders and the populations we serve. The bigger picture is an urgent need to reduce our reliance on scarce and non-renewable resources. That’s why we need to keep working together to rethink how systems work and make them sustainable—so that we save our precious resources, deliver better medical images, and keep critical services up and running to ensure that people can rely on healthcare when they most need it. Not just for us, but for the generations to come.

Atul Gupta, MD, is chief medical officer of Philips Image-Guided Therapy and Precision Diagnosis and a practicing diagnostic and interventional radiologist. Questions and comments can be directed to [email protected].