For more than a decade, researchers have been developing a lung-imaging method in which patients inhale magnetically aligned helium-3 gas atoms. Like a magnetic dye, the noble gas makes otherwise hidden air spaces light up when viewed via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, preserving the gas's magnetic alignment has proven to be a frustrating exercise, says Brian T. Saam of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
That's because the long-necked glass bulbs in which the gas becomes magnetically aligned in a laser-based process can suddenly "go bad" and destroy the magnetic order for no apparent reason, says Saam. Baffled glassware makers have been resorting to "a lot of folk art" in the vain hope of making reliable containers, Saam says. Once aligned, the helium flows into a plastic bag from which it is inhaled during the MRI scan.