When crucial medical research equipment was inoperative because it needed helium to function, a Harvard University associate professor turned to the Defense Logistics Agency Energy for support.
DLA Energy Aerospace Energy partnered with the American Physical Society and American Chemical Society several years ago to grow its supply of helium to universities.
“This program has been a lifesaver for us in resurrecting a pioneering and extremely expensive federally funded MRI scanner,” said Jerome Ackerman, Ph.D., associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and an investigator at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We were unable to obtain sufficient liquid helium from our regular supplier, and did not know how we were going to get it.”
Charlene Smoot, a DLA Energy Aerospace Energy customer support specialist, said universities qualify for DLA Energy support if their project is operated under a federally funded grant and requires the use of liquid helium. It is Smoot’s responsibility to research the university grant to assure it meets the requirements for support.
Providing authorized customers like academic researchers with a way to purchase affordable and reliable energy is part of DLA’s strategic plan. The Agency actively engages in outreach to raise awareness of the comprehensive support DLA can provide to the nation whether it is through warfighting, improving government operations, saving taxpayer dollars, or helping advance research and development.
In October 2017, Harvard asked DLA Energy for help.
“The scanner has been out of operation since July following a quench of its magnet,” Ackerman said.
This occurs when the device suddenly loses superconductivity.
“Over 30 research projects, including one of my own, funded by the National Institutes of Health, make use of this scanner, so it is extraordinarily important to get it up and running again,” he said.
The startup of the MRI requires a large amount of helium packaged in dewars, or containers for liquified gases, because the hospital could not accept a bulk trailer load. The MGH/Martinos Center team working to secure liquid helium includes Harvard professors Thomas Witzel, Lawrence Wald and the Martinos Center Director Bruce Rosen.
“They were not able to find a supplier that would be willing to deliver the amount needed,” Smoot said. “Jerry (Guzman) and I received their requirements and began working a one-time contract.”
While Smoot and her customer support team worked directly with the hospital to identify their needs, Aerospace Energy’s supplier division began working on soliciting for a vendor. Patricia Bocock, Aerospace Energy supervisory contracting officer, and Jim Bartley, contracting specialist, led that effort.
“Jim spent a lot of time with the vendor to create a delivery schedule that worked with the customer,” Bocock said. “The key was to ensure the customer had a continuous supply as they were cooling the magnets.”
The sales contract was completed in November; the helium was delivered in late January.
“This was a challenging requirement to support,” Smoot said. “Most of the work occurred over the holidays. It took a tremendous amount of coordination to make sure that everything was in place to support their specific needs.”
“Several individuals across DLA Energy Aerospace helped in making this happen,” Bartley said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
The effort did not go unnoticed.
“On behalf of Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, I want to express our deep gratitude for putting up with our complicated negotiations and working through to a solution,” Ackerman said.
The one-time contract opened the door for an extended partnership.
“I’m happy to say they just signed the long-term sales contract, so we can support them, long term, under our new contract beginning in June 2018,” Smoot said.
Massachusetts General Hospital is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, where nearly all of the senior researchers are faculty members.