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Project name:

Retrieve, purify and reuse liquid helium

Status: Idea
Creation date: 23-09-2022

Project objectives:

Do you have the capability to retrieve and purify liquid helium from end-of-life MRI scanners across the globe, making it suitable for reuse?

Full description: Many Philips MRI scanners will be reaching the end of their lifespan in the coming years, meaning that they need to be decommissioned. During the decommissioning process, the scanners are disassembled partly or in full. One of the essential components of any MRI scanner is the super conductor magnet with its own cooling system. This cooling system is the focal point of the present challenge.

The cooling system utilises helium. The scanner contains a donut-shaped barrel, which can store up to 1,600 litres of liquid helium used to cool the super conductor magnet. When the scanner is dismantled at the end of its lifespan, the barrel will still contain around 600 to 800 litres of liquid helium. Philips wants to be able to drain and purify this helium to then resell it for reuse.

Helium is a finite resource on our planet. Current estimates suggest that the global helium supply will run out in 2035-2040. Awareness of this impending helium scarcity has been growing in recent years, and helium prices have gone up significantly. As such, reclaiming helium from end-of-life devices is not just a good way of combatting scarcity, but also provides economic advantages. Reclaiming liquid helium is part of Philips’ endeavour towards a circular supply chain.

Draining the helium from the end-of-life devices is not a problem. The process is the same as the one used for filling the barrels, except in reverse. By pumping pressurised gas or air into one side of the barrel, the liquid helium is essentially pushed out, collected and stored in special cylinders designed to transport the helium (Dewars).

The problem is that after having been used for between 15 to 20 years, the leftover helium is contaminated, mostly with frozen air in the form of crystals. Due to the presence of these frozen water crystals in the liquid helium, it cannot be resold. Buyers are only interested in pure liquid helium because it is much easier to sell.

The present challenge revolves around the purification of contaminated liquid helium during the process of draining it from the storage tank in the MRI scanner into the transportation canisters.

Philips is already playing an active role in this process, by taking care of the return logistical processes to enable reusing parts from MRI scanners that need to be decommissioned. The Philips MRI scanner factory in Best has the equipment needed for reclaiming helium as a gas. However, this equipment is not available worldwide on site, i.e. wherever systems are being decommissioned by Philips engineers or subcontractors. As such, the valuable gaseous helium in many of these systems is currently simply escaping into the atmosphere. In the coming three years, at least 1,000 MRI scanners in hospitals around the globe are slated to be decommissioned. Even after those initial three years, many more devices will need to be decommissioned over time. Many thousands of scanners are currently in use worldwide, ensuring plenty of work for twenty years to come.

While the latest generation of MRI scanners uses significantly less helium, MRI scanners that contain 1,000 litres of helium or more are still being sold. Moreover, other MRI scanner suppliers are dealing with similar issues.

Philips is investing in the development of green technologies and is working on reducing the environmental impact of its activities and ensuring healthy ecosystems.

 

What are we looking for?

This challenge is of both a technical and a logistical nature, due to the widespread and sometimes remote locations of the MRI scanners to be decommissioned. It comprises draining and purifying the liquid helium, storing it temporarily at minus 268 degrees Celsius (5.1 degrees Kelvin) and supplying it for reuse. Large helium purifiers already exist, but the challenge is designing a system that is smaller and thus can more easily be deployed worldwide. An immediately deployable mobile solution that can be used to purify the helium right away as it is being drained from the end-of-life MRI scanner would be preferable. The entire process must be completely safe, due to the explosion hazard of expanding helium, the extremely low temperatures and the transportation of helium in a liquid state. Compliance with all applicable legislation regarding transport of dangerous goods is non-negotiable.

Philips is looking for, at worst, a cost-neutral solution, with the environmental benefit being the first-and-foremost driver. The supplier should have thorough knowledge of the global helium market, and the solution offered should be deployable in the short term (TRL level 7/8). A business case in which the supplier themselves would be responsible for processing the reclaimed helium would be preferable.

The solution must be a safe, highly functional system that can eventually be deployed worldwide. Ideally speaking, the solution would fit into the current helium supply chain, without involving any additional work on Philips’ part. While the decommissioning schedule for end-of-life MRI scanners is available well ahead of time, the system must allow for flexible deployment pending last-minute changes to flight plans.

There are two clear (though perhaps more) potential strategies to create the desired solution:

  1. A filter is developed that purifies the contaminated helium during the draining process, to the point where it would thereafter qualify as pure helium in accordance with our quality standards (100% pure, and 99,999% when gaseous).
  2. A supplier is found who is interested in the global purchase of contaminated helium to then purify, process and re-sell it themselves.

 

The first strategy is strongly preferred by Philips and seen as the ideal solution. This filter would need to be compact and easily transportable enough to be shipped across the globe to any site where an MRI scanner needs to be decommissioned. As such, there is no need for a large number of filters to be developed; 1 or a few mobile filters would be plenty to enable Philips to decommission all of its older MRI scanners. The purification process could also occur in the interim, such as during helium refills. The process of draining and purifying 600 to 800 litres of liquid helium cannot take more than a single workday.

The solution offered should at least meet the following requirements:

  • Easily deployable, worldwide
  • TRL level 7/8
  • A safe, fast and well working process, preferably a compact, mobile process deployable worldwide
  • Removing helium from MRI scanners, purifying it, collecting it in transportation canisters (Dewars) and conveying them
  • A process that can be executed in a hospital in one day
  • An effective solution for purifying contaminated helium, notably the removal of frozen air in the form of crystals
  • The SME/start-up holds a dangerous goods compliance
  • The SME/start-up will provide a technical solution and ideally collaborate with helium suppliers or provide the solution directly to them.

 

What are we NOT looking for?

Solutions in which Philips would need to fulfil an active R&D role are most definitely not preferred.

Retrieving helium as a gas and then re-cryogenising it (cooling it down to minus 268 degrees Celsius) also takes an enormous amount of energy, and is therefore not preferred.

Philips is also not looking for an alternative to helium, as the amount of helium required by the latest generation of MRI scanners is already significantly reduced.

 

What’s in it for you?

If Philips believes in the solution offered, the bidder will be granted insight into the MRI scanner decommissioning process. Options include a session with the helium experts in Best as well as a tour of the facilities. A pilot budget of 10,000 euros minimum will also be made available.

The bidder who offers a suitable solution will gain entry to a market with many thousands of decommissionings over the next 20 years at least (even outside of Philips).

Currently, 1,000 MRI scanners are slated for decommissioning in the coming three years. The value of helium fluctuates considerably, is sensitive to geopolitical developments and currently has a substantial, growing value per litre. The amount of helium that can be reclaimed from an end-of-life MRI scanner lies between 600 and 800 litres. As such, this is an excellent growth business case amounting to at least 15 to 20 million euros, with long-term prospects.

 

How can the SynchUp! challenge program benefit you?
  • An innovation contract with a launching customer/partner!
  • Funding (€10,000 vouchers, to be spent in the regional ecosystem for e.g. testing, lab and demo facilities, IP consulting, etc.)
  • Coaching and counselling
  • A stage and free publicity
  • Knowledge and contact with experts

 

The challenge program

SynchUp! is an initiative of REWIN West-Brabant. BOM, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, Provence Noord-Brabant are involved as partners for the challenge program. Together we aim to provide innovative entrepreneurs and startups the possibility to create and develop their idea/product and to put this on the market. This supports the common goal: to accelerate innovations and transitions and strengthening the ecosystem.

Your pitch (max 6 pages / 18 slides)

Concept description:
Describe your concept in as much detail as possible.

Pilot description:
Please provide a brief description of what it will take to prototype and/or pilot and what you will need from us to do so.

Team description:
Provide a brief description of the company and team that plans to work on the pilot.

There are no formal requirements for the pitch (presentations, slide decks & letters are all allowed), apart from the fact that it must be uploaded as a PDF file (A4, landscape or portrait) with a max. size of 30MB. Videos, example websites and so on can be included as links.

 

Timeline Challenge
  • 14 Sept ’22 – 12.00 CEST: Challenge launch – open for applications from 12.00 CEST
  • 3 Nov ’22 – 17.00 CEST: Challenge deadline – sign up no later than 5 pm
  • 18 Nov ’22: Longlist announced – A longlist of start-ups/scale-ups that are invited to meet the challengers is announced
  • 28 Nov – 2 Dec ’22: Digital introduction meetings with challengers & participants + information session about confidentiality and IP
  • 6 Dec ’22: Shortlist announced based on outcome of meetings – A shortlist of start-ups/scale-ups that will be given the opportunity to work on an innovation contract is announced
  • 12 – 16 Dec ’22: Make schedule & working agreements + coordinate NDA if necessary
  • 19 Dec ’22 – 10 Mar ’23: Challenge weeks – sessions with challengers, participants & coaches to arrive at an innovation contract
  • 10 Mar ’23: Apply for vouchers – submit draft innovation contract + apply for vouchers
  • 17 Mar ’23: Vouchers awarded – submit final innovation contract + vouchers are awarded
  • 30 Mar ’23: Matchevent – celebrating the innovation contracts and partnerships + handing out the vouchers

Contact / source: Retrieve, purify and reuse liquid helium - SynchUp!

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