How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 463

How do the "user-friendly" MRI machines work vs. the old catacomb type? (the opened vs. closed types)
The shape of the MRI machine is dictated primarily by the strong magnetic field it uses to record information about protons in a person's tissues. This field needs to be very uniform over a large region of space and the simplest way of producing such a uniform field is with a huge coil of current-carrying wire. The person would go inside the coil, in the uniform field and other parts of the MRI machine would record the information. While the coil could be dressed up to look more like a tubular hole than a coil of wire, it was still very confining. Newer MRI machines use two smaller coils of current carrying wire, one above the other, to create a uniform field for imaging. This arrangement is trickier because the two coils must be shaped very carefully to ensure that the field is appropriately uniform. Moreover, most MRI machines use superconducting wires in these coils to achieve very high magnetic fields. Since superconducting coils must be cooled to very low temperatures, they require liquid helium coolants and sophisticated thermal insulation. While the single coil magnets required only a single refrigerator and insulating chamber, those with two coil magnets required two refrigerators and insulating chambers. That increases the expense of the magnet and its operation, but produces a more open imaging region.

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