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Researchers hope to deploy the device to the International Space Station to study the effects of space travel on humans

While mankind has been sending men and women into space for the past five decades, the effects of spaceflight on the human body are still only partially understood.  One key obstacle is that many forms of high-resolution medical scanning equipment is too bulky and heavy to transport into space for use in orbiting space stations.

I. Bringing an MRI up to the ISS?

A key example is the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.  On Earth they provide the capability to image tissues at a fidelity not possible with other types of scans.  A typical MRI machine costs around $1M USD and weighs about 11 tons due to its bulky liquid-helium cooled superconducting magnets.  Also a traditional MRI could endanger space state residents -- its gradient coils consume massive amounts of power in short bursts and the magnets can create stray magnetic fields that could disrupt life support and other mission-critical systems.

The chairman of the Canadian University of Saskatchewan's Biomedical engineering department hopes to change that, though.  Chairman Gordon Sarty heads a team that has developed a miniature version of the scanner that weighs less than a ton and costs as little as $200,000.

Micro MRI
A full-size mockup of Professor Sarty's reimagined MRI
[Image Source: Gordon Sarty / University of Saskatchewan]

An initial deployment to the International Space Station (ISS) may involve a 1/20th of a ton device, only capable of scanning limbs, to study bone mass and vasculature.  However, Professor Sarty would like to build a full size scanner for the station eventually.  He comments in an NBC News interview, "I would like to build a facility-class, whole-body-sized MRI.  Such a project would require an agreement between the ISS space agencies."

II. Initial Findings Look Promising

At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Sept. 13 AIAA Space 2012 conference Professor Sarty and his team presented their findings.

Their instrument employs a couple of key advances.  First, it utilizes a permanent Halbach magnet -- the primary source of the large weight reduction.  Halbach magnets are a construct of permanent magnets arranged in an array such that they increase each other’s magnet fields within one region and nullify it within another.  In a cylindrical configuration -- a configuration being explored for both motor applications and imaging equipment like Professor Sarty's micro-MRI -- in the ideal case there is an intense field within the cylinder and virtually no field outside of it.

Halbach magnet
A Halbach magnet [Image Source: PERDaix]

Thus the Halbach magnet cylinder also solves a couple of the other issues as it draws no power and produces minimal magnetization outside the cylinder.  To further reduce power, the coil system is modified to only need the radiofrequency coil -- a design called the Transmit Array Spatial Encoding (TRASE).

While the result may be tailor-fit for space applications, Professor Sarty says its qualities like reduced weight and low power consumption could make it well suited for terrestrial applications, as well, such as battlefield deployments (the device could be loaded aboard a truck and run off of batteries).

ISS wide
The final target deployment is the ISS. [Image Source: NASA]

While conference attendees reportedly urged Professor Sarty to set his eyes on these earthbound applications first, he has his sights firmly set on space and is lobbying the Canadian Space Agency to deploy a prototype to the ISS.  He comments, "Eventually someone will break a bone in space.  We have no idea if that bone will heal."

Source: NBC News

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RE: terrestrial applications
By przemo_li on 9/23/2012 6:18:57 AM , Rating: 2
They could license technology and produce them cheaper than fresh start ups. Since they have know how in manipulatory, and execution. And ready to use sale channels.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Warwulf on 9/23/2012 12:04:28 PM , Rating: 2
Or, more likely, an existing MRI machine manufacturer (like GE, Toshiba, etc) could purchase the patent and not produce the cheaper machine so the only option is their $1M machine.

RE: terrestrial applications
By ViroMan on 9/23/2012 1:45:41 PM , Rating: 2
The interesting thing about patents is that it doesn't stop governments from making things that are protected by them.

RE: terrestrial applications
By XZerg on 9/23/2012 11:21:30 PM , Rating: 2
what i have seen is that technologies like these get bought out by the companies that are producing the costlier version, only to sell the "cheaper" version at a much inflated price, closer to the costlier version. they are just "recouping" their loss of R&D on the costlier version and the $$$ paid to buy this one out.

RE: terrestrial applications
By Mint on 9/24/2012 5:05:22 AM , Rating: 3
I don't think MRI machines are produced by so few manufacturers that you get no competition. Clinics want to reduce costs (especially when starting up), so as long as the machine produces reasonable data quality, a lower priced machine will be in demand.

Looks like no manufacturer has a dominant market share:
That means the patent holder will make more money getting $100k/machine from each manufacturer (which they will offer for such a huge cost reduction) than $300k/machine from one exclusive licensee, which would be the only way that the cheaper machine winds up not getting produced.

Ask yourself why flat panel TVs came down in price so fast. Cost savings WILL largely get passed down to consumers, even with all the shady crap going on in the medical industry.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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