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  Life   More Features  14 Dec 2016  New Tech: Cheaper MRI machines? Not so fast

New Tech: Cheaper MRI machines? Not so fast

Published : Dec 14, 2016, 3:37 am IST
Updated : Dec 14, 2016, 6:29 am IST

Scientists in India have discovered that there is an element that can help make cheaper MRI machines.

MRI machines use extremely expensive materials such as niobium–titanium alloys.
 MRI machines use extremely expensive materials such as niobium–titanium alloys.

A step into the future, using technology available now by a team of scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, promises to bring down the cost of an MRI machine by over 100 times. We doctors really do appreciate their efforts. Magnetic resonance imaging, if made cheaper, can be dispatched to far-flung regions that are currently not able to avail the services of modern, medical devices.

While it’s certainly a remarkable breakthrough, there’s a likelihood that it could take at least 10 to 15 years for us to see the new MRI machines in the market. Let’s revisit the achievement of the TIFR scientists for a bit. They have discovered that Bismuth (Bi on the periodic table) can be used as a superconductor. Currently, MRI machines use extremely expensive materials such as niobium–titanium alloys. the more simplistic Bismuth could make the machines cheaper.

“This discovery can show that there can be a new class of superconductors like Bismuth and provide an alternative path to discover new superconducting materials which are totally different from the current superconducting elements,” professor S. Ramakrishnan, lead investigator, department of condensed matter physics and material sciences, TIFR, was quoted as saying in reports. However, a serious lack of research funds could mean the entire breakthrough will not be very easy to implement. Innovation takes a while to appear around us and the TIFR scientists gave out the example of how superconducting magnets first came into being a full 60 years after Dutchman Heike Kamerlingh Onnes of Leiden University discovered superconductivity of mercury way back in 1911.

“It took another 10 years for superconducting magnets to be used initially for laboratory application, in Medical Resonance Imaging (MRI), and in the Large Hadron Collider that discovered the Higgs Boson or God Particle,” added Ramakrishnan.

That said, this discovery will significantly reduce the production and maintenance costs of high-tech medical machinery. Currently, MRI machines rely on the niobium-titanium superconductive alloy (also found in mass spectrometers and particle accelerators) which is much more expensive than metallic bismuth. Our tech today also does not permit the quick and easy replacement of niobium-titanium superconductors. Superconductivity is the property of a material that allows electricity to pass through at very low absolute temperatures. Bismuth wasn’t known for its ability to conduct electricity until the TIFR scientists proved so. The team found that bismuth becomes a superconductor at a temperature of 530 microKelvin (about -273 degree celsius). This superconductivity will allow a doctor to receive images of a better quality and that will go and help improve diagnosis.

But it’s interesting to note how a sequence of events triggered over a century ago by Onnes in 1911 is still making a mark as modern-day, cutting-edge innovation.

The writer is a radiologist based out of Mumbai and is attached with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre

Tags: scientists, mri machine