Away from the hustle and bustle of the race to electric vehicles, it is a battle of similar, but far more unobtrusive among the manufacturers of MRI: reducing the fossil energy consumption of these large medical imaging devices, fond of liquid helium.
Magnetic resonance imaging is now a tool of medical diagnosis very common: more than 100 million MRI scans are performed each year in the world and this market is expected to reach € 6 billion in 2021, compared with 4.7 billion euros in 2016, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. Born in the late 1970s, the technology uses the properties of atoms of hydrogen present in the water of our body by making it respond to a powerful magnetic field to then convert their signals into 2D or 3D images. This magnetic field is produced by magnets made of “superconductors” (no electrical resistance) through copper coils immersed in helium, a gas with a liquid a temperature close to absolute zero, around -269 degrees Celsius. So it is to be a few hundred, or even up to 2,000 litres of liquid helium to operate a MRI, depending on the model. Some require to be recharged from time to time, a portion of the helium that might evaporate back to the gaseous state. Gold helium “is expensive because it is becoming scarce”, explains to the AFP Serge Ripart, director imaging Siemens Healthineers, the society of medical technology in the German giant Siemens, the global market leader MRI.
– Philips pulls out the first –
Because the helium cannot be produced artificially at the present time. It mostly comes from natural gas deposits, from where it is extracted by the cryogenic process. Its prices oscillate “from 20 to 40 euros per liter, according to the country”, adds Mr Ripart.
“This could increase by 50% to 100% in the coming months,” says Marceau Eck, marketing manager, MRI at Philips France, pointing to “problems of quantities” in the United States and “geopolitical uncertainty” hanging over other major producers, such as Qatar.
An alignment of planets appropriate to the Dutch Philips, which launches this month the MRI consume less helium in the world: his “Ingenia Ambition X” is able to operate with only 7 litres of liquid helium, and without the need of recharging, ” says Dr. Eck. Principle: rather than submerge fully in the liquid helium, the superconducting coils, they are coated in “microtubules”, in order to cool with an amount of helium is optimized, ” he explains. “We wanted this machine to become the standard horizon 2019-2020 (…). It comes up with something that is really new compared to the competition. Some announcing for many years that they will have it, but they are still in their tests,” he adds. Thus, as early as 2016, the u.s. GE Healthcare unveiled “Freelium”, a MRI also requiring very little helium (20 litres at the time). But it has not been marketed: a deliberate choice, according to the group.
– “A progress, not a revolution” –
“It was found that there was a certain amount of interest [for this technology], but also for the technology that conventional”, the market of MRI is “quite a traditionalist”, recently explained to AFP Stéphane Maquaire, director of the activity MRI in Europe from GE Healthcare. “It’s a bit like the electric car: the +switch+ (failover, editor’s NOTE) is not going to be immediate,” according to him. Such an innovation represents an additional cost for the purchase, which delays the gains of savings generated by a reduced consumption of helium. However, the emerging markets, where sales of MRI are the most dynamic, “will more likely go on to the MRI input of the range, with acquisition costs lower”, argued Mr Maquaire. Siemens Healthineers also “know how” of the MRI works with a few tens of liters of helium, but also tests in-house for the time being. “This is not a development priority” for the group, which prefers to focus on innovations with a clinical impact, as the reduction of the acquisition time of the MRI, according to Mr Ripart. “It is progress, but not a revolution,” he adds, recalling that many MRI mechanisms have more need of charging, thanks to systems to liquefy helium in a closed circuit. “The real break-up would be to obtain the superconductivity of the magnets to ambient temperature, working on new materials, and the judge said it. “Research teams are working everywhere in the world, but I don’t know if there will come a day”.