Written by Nic Turner.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the new standard for medical diagnostics. It gives doctors the ability to peer deep inside the body to identify tumors, blockages, brain damage and other conditions. To produce their high-resolution images, the scanners use powerful electromagnets cooled with liquid helium. But there is a problem with this approach: there is a finite supply of helium and it is becoming more and more expensive.
“By 2018, it is predicted that the demand for helium will exceed the supply,” said Mike Tomsic, owner and president of Hyper Tech Research. “For many customers the cost of helium has tripled in the last five years, and it is expected to keep rising.”
As helium prices increase, MRI machines will become costlier for hospitals to maintain, affecting the price of scans and medical care for the general public. The solution is an MRI machine that does not require liquid helium—exactly what Tomsic and his Columbus-based company are working to achieve.
Behind the goal is a key innovation: magnesium diboride (MgB2) wire. A superconductor, MgB2 has zero electrical resistance when cooled below a critical temperature. When compared to a traditional superconductor, however, MgB2 has a much higher critical temperature—39 Kelvin vs. 9 Kelvin. The higher critical temperature means that MRI machines using the material could use cryogenic refrigerators instead of liquid helium. In 2009, Hyper Tech Research was awarded a grant from the Ohio Third Frontier to accelerate the technology.
Hyper Tech used the support to triple their wire’s performance, establish relationships with six major MRI companies, and successfully manufacture and test MRI coils for several companies. Over the period they received more than $12 million in federal grants and contracts related to MgB2 superconductor applications, and their partner MRI manufacturers have spent more than $10 million internally to develop MgB2 magnets. There is still work to be done, but the company expects commercial entry with MgB2 MRI machines in the next two years. Tomsic sees the company’s location as a strategic advantage.
“Being in Ohio has been a huge asset to us. There is a strong superconductivity, cryogenics and MRI base here in Ohio,” he said.