The “catalyst for tremendous growth in demand for helium”, this month marks 42 years since the first ever MRI scan.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive, painless imaging technique for obtaining detailed pictures of organs and other structures inside the human body; a procedure that can eliminate the need for exploratory surgery.

The first ever MRI scan of a human was performed on 3rd July 1977 and this method of imaging diagnostics has developed so rapidly that it is now found in almost every major hospital in developed economies.

Liquid helium plays an essential role in the technology to cool the superconducting magnets that generate high resolution images of the human body.

“Beginning in the mid-1980’s MRI was the catalyst for tremendous growth in demand for helium, as well as the build out of the global helium supply chain,” Phil Kornbluth, President of Kornbluth Helium Consulting and veteran of the helium sector with more than 30 years of experience working for some of the biggest players in the business, highlighted to gasworld.

“Liquid helium, which previously was viewed as more of a specialty gas and was only consumed in a relatively small number of advanced countries, would eventually be required in every city in the world that had a modern hospital.”

“This forced the major helium suppliers to greatly expand their distribution networks and service offerings to enable them to reliably deliver liquid helium around the world on relatively short notice and with minimal losses.”

“Today, MRI is one of the most important applications for helium and the major MRI manufacturers, including GE, Siemens and Philips, are among the world’s largest consumers of helium.”

Kornbluth said MRI was originally referred to as NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) when it first entered the market.

“It was realised that the world ‘nuclear’ might scare patients who might think they would be exposed to radiation when they had a scan, so the name was changed to MRI,” he explained.

“The small scanners that are used for various types of research are still referred to as NMR.”