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mri machineNIH Image Gallery/flickr

CHICAGO — The MRI technology we use to get a clearer picture of the inside of our bodies relies on a key resource that keeps the magnets inside the machines extremely cool — 452 degrees Fahrenheit cold, to be exact

To keep things that chilly, the machines use liquid helium, a finite resource.

To counter that, GE is developing a new magnetic technology that only needs about 1% of the liquid helium traditional MRI machines need. Called “Freelium,” the technology uses helium gas that gets converted to roughly 20 liters of liquid helium, much less than the 2,000 or so liters of liquid helium traditional MRIs run on. 

“What we do with the technology is we effectively have a magnet assembly that has the exact same performance characteristics as our current 1.5T platform,” Aaron Flammang, a product manager for GE Healthcare MR, told Business Insider at the at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference.

Here’s how it works: Helium gas is inserted into the system. That gas gets compressed until it turns into about 20 liters’ worth of helium — much less than the thousands needed in traditional machines. 

“What you end up with is a completely contained system,” he said. The technology isn’t yet available for commercial use. 

The system also has the added benefit of not needing a quench pipe, or a way for the liquid helium to escape in the event of an emergency. 

IMG_7687A Freelium display at the RSNA conference in Chicago.Lydia Ramsey/Business Insider

Developing more sustainable technologies has a few benefits. For one, the cost of helium varies by country, and is one of the biggest expenses to maintaining an MRI machine. Ideally, it could then be used in locations that otherwise couldn’t have access to MRI machines because helium access or costs are prohibitive.

GE is not alone in pushing for more sustainable radiology technologies. A review published earlier this year in the World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development found that “adoption of sustainable diagnostic radiology by many countries in Europe and the UK helps to provide imaging services efficiently and effectively, with simultaneous preservation of the natural resources, patient health and environment much better than before.”