LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Ka-boom. An improvised explosive device goes off in one of the world's many distant battlefields. A soldier may suffer a head or brain injury, but a key to diagnosing soft-tissue damage — a magnetic imaging resonance machine, or MRI — is huge and expensive, and often a long way away.
But now, engineers and scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are designing a lower-tech, portable "battlefield MRI" that could be deployed to war zones, as well as to poor and developing countries, to diagnose injuries and diseases more easily and at a lower cost.
Engineer Al Urbaitis and scientist Per E. Magnelind are two of about 10 researchers working in a nondescript metal building at the sprawling LANL campus as part of what's called the SQUID team. The acronym stands for superconducting quantum interference device.
Standard MRI machines, like the ones you see in hospitals, use a very high magnetic field to align the protons in water molecules to create magnetic resonance signals, which the machine reads and turns into high-quality images.
But the big machines are expensive to make, use a lot of energy and require costly cryogen liquids like liquid nitrogen to keep them cool. They also exert major force on metal items — a problem when shrapnel may be present or when unconscious patients can't report on any metal implants.
The LANL team is working on producing suitable body tissue images using much lower magnetic fields, similar to the Earth's. That's where the SQUID devices, the most sensitive magnetic field detectors around, come in.
Using something called a Josephson junction, a SQUID can detect a change of energy as much as 100 billion times weaker than the electromagnetic energy that moves a compass needle as it measures the changing magnetic flux inside a superconducting loop.
SQUIDs "are very, very sensitive to the existence of any magnetic field, and a magnetic field is generated whenever you have a nerve impulse, whenever a current is generated," said Urbaitis. "They are sensitive to everything."
A major problem is that SQUIDs are so sensitive to outside interference, including the noise from passing vehicles and radio signals, that the new MRI machines are being built and tested in large, metal-shielded rooms.
But the team's ultimate goal is "to have brain imaging that works well in an unshielded environment," said scientist Magnelind.
In an unshielded form, a portable MRI machine could be put to use on military frontlines. Now, the closest MRI for injured American soldiers in the Middle East is in Germany.
"What this project is about is to bring it outside of the shielded room and the lab environment into an open environment," Magnelind said.
The solution the team is working on uses a lightweight series of wire coils around the portable MRI to compensate for the Earth's magnetic field. The SQUID sensitivity is a double-edged sword. While that sensitivity enables it to gather ultra-low frequency MRI signals, a radio signal from miles away can also disrupt it, hence the shielding, which increases the girth of the portable machine. The goal is to solve the bulk problem to make the "battlefield MRI" truly portable.
Developing a portable MRI has become more important in today's battle environment.
"An MRI in general is very useful in picking up things like brain trauma," said Urbaitis. In our current wars, "we have gotten very good at protecting our soldiers from lots of different trauma, but one thing that we are not very good at is protecting them from shock," he said.
"Improvised explosive devices generally result in either death of the soldier or they are realized in a concussion-like effect, so an MRI is becoming increasingly useful in picking up stuff like brain trauma," said Urbaitis.
The portable MRI has implications beyond the battlefield. Urbaitis cites the concerns of concussions suffered by athletes, especially younger athletes. And for rural America and developing countries, current hospital-sized MRI machines and their associated costs are impractical.
"It just isn't possible, there just aren't machines there and those people are not going to be able to afford those machines anyway," said Urbaitis. The regular MRIs cost between $3 million and $10 million, in addition to requiring expensive materials to cool their magnets.
Further breakthroughs could provide important diagnostic tools for doctors in less developed parts of the world and also help those areas create jobs.
"The instrument is lovely from a simplicity point of view," Urbaitis said, adding that it attracts people from developing countries "because they could have their own medical device industry."
Other medical uses for the small MRI units could include the treatment of hydrocephalus in places where the condition is a problem.
Hydrocephalus occurs when there is a high level of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, causing an enlarged head in childhood. It was once known as "water on the brain" and can cause mental disabilities. Some babies are born with it, or it may develop from infections or brain trauma.
Currently, medical practitioners in Africa have to expose young patients to repeated CT (computed tomography) scans and X-ray radiation, said Magnelind.
"It would prevent them from being exposed to unnecessary levels of radiation, which you would get in a CT scan, and would help the physicians make the call if their treatment is applicable or not," he said.
When can the portable MRIs move into functional use and at what cost?
"So the notion of how cheap an MRI machine could be is somewhat related to scale, but if you can take some of the technology out of it, as the SQUID team has, then you can conceive of a system that neither the raw materials nor the technology is inaccessible," Urbaitis said.
"Meaning that, if it's simple enough and you only build it in 1,000 units a year, then it can still be very inexpensive."
While the team's work is progressing, Magnelind believes a working product is still a ways off.
The concept of low magnetic field MRI "has been around since the beginning of the 2000s and I think on a small scale it would take a couple of years to make it into a product. But to make it more generally available, I think it is further out," he said.
Is that wine fake?
The new MRI technology has also been considered for use in airport security to distinguish hazardous materials from nonhazardous.
In a less crucial area, it might also help tell one wine from another.
"Lovers of wine will spend enormous amounts of money for what is being sold as a vintage bottle of wine," Urbaitis said. "Counterfeiters have looked at this and said 'gold mine.' "
All they have do is a get a period-correct bottle and fill it with cheap wine. "And I have a $50,000 product here that I have made for $12," Urbaitis said.
But "because vintners have a huge, huge library of samples of all the wines they have ever made, you can make a fingerprint description using MRI techniques to tell you exactly whether or not that wine is a match for whatever was made in 1956," he said.
A small amount of funding that the Department of Energy gives LANL is discretionary, LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said. It was those funds for what's called Laboratory Directed Research and Development that spawned the SQUID team. Obtaining funding was "very competitive," Roark said.
Because of that money, a smaller version of an MRI machine could one day be in a battlefield and run off mere car batteries once things are perfected, Urbaitis said.
"And you don't have to call on Elon Musk (the Tesla car architect) to lend a hand," he said.