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Helium shortage: impact on medicine and research

By Harrison Grubb,

2022-12-06

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TROY, N.Y. ( NEWS10 ) – As the global helium shortage continues, a variety of industries that count on the element are facing the impacts of supply constraints. While many of us make thing of balloons when it comes to helium, it’s also a vital component in medicine and research.

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“What we have to do is be strategic about it. We should use helium for things we think are critical,” said Dr. Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

At RPI, helium in its liquid form is a vital component for NMR machines. The machines, which are similar to MRI’s, are an important resource in medical research.

“A large example of our work here, we’re doing drug discovery type efforts, where we’re exploring which molecules are interacting with proteins of interest,” Biomanaging & NMR Research Core Director Dr. Scott McCallum explained, noting how there’s ongoing research into Alzheimer’s, COVID-19 and a variety of others.

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The cold temperature of liquid helium cools a magnet inside the machine, allowing it to maintain its superconducting power. But the global shortage of helium has led to some concerning moments at the university in the past.

“We have reached crisis points already in terms of supply. We’ve been within days of losing our magnets here during some of the earlier shortages,” Breneman said.

The Dean of the School of Science says a loss of enough helium will cause the magnet to “quench”, which is essentially a massive boil-off of helium.

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Breneman says the market on helium has been squeezed over the past several years.

“I guess I would say it’s a climbing shortage problem with spikes,” he said, noting that the element is a finite, non-renewable resource that’s had demand exceed its extraction.

It’s technology like MRI and NMR that Breneman says are driving concerns over helium’s availability, “They should care because they should think about what is going to happen if we don’t have enough MRI machines when they need one. It’s becoming a much more commonly resource in the medical field.”

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To try to combat the issue, RPI has a recapturing device on top of one of its NMR machines, which allows some of the helium that’s released during the process to be reused.

“Now we try to capture it for refilling in some future time, but also we don’t get it all,” Breneman said.

With the ongoing constraints of helium supply, Breneman says there is plenty of ongoing research to see how these sorts of magnets could continue to operate without supercooled temperatures offered by liquid helium.

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