GE Healthcare to invest $17 million in Florence magnet plant

By Chuck Crumbo
ccrumbo@scbiznews.com
Published May 22, 2013

FLORENCE, S.C. — Although helium is the second-most abundant element in the universe, there’s a worldwide shortage of the colorless, odorless gas.

The shortage is exacerbated by a tug-a-war between commercial gas companies and the federal government, which maintains an underground reserve near Amarillo, Texas. Helium has been stored there since 1925 for use in military applications.

A magnet unit used in the manufacturing of MRI machines frames a group of visitors that toured the GE Healthcare plant in Florence. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)

A magnet unit used in the manufacturing of MRI machines frames a group of visitors that toured the GE Healthcare plant in Florence. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)

A magnet unit used in the manufacturing of MRI machines frames a group of visitors that toured the GE Healthcare plant in Florence. (Photos/Chuck Crumbo)
GE executives and local and state officials take part in the groundbreaking ceremony for a $17 million, 5,000-square-foot facility that will capture wasted or evaporated helium used in the manufacturing process.
In the civilian world, helium is used for much more than inflating party balloons. It’s used in the manufacturing of computer chips and fiber optic cables, and also to cool the magnets that go into the life- saving magnetic resonance imaging machines produced by GE Healthcare.

To lower its reliance on commercially produced helium, GE Healthcare plans to invest $17 million and build a 5,000-square-foot facility at its magnet plant in Florence.

The investment is expected to create 50 jobs — mostly in construction — and lead to 10 permanent positions at the Pee Dee facility, said Trina Folk, plant manager.

The new facility will incorporate proprietary techniques to capture pure helium gas and compress it into a liquid form, which is necessary for the magnets to function accurately, Folk said.

Helium is cooled to 440 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which is less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero. At 440 degrees below zero, the magnets in a MRI machine are at their optimum operating temperature.

“MR imaging provides an unparalleled look into a patient’s body and helps us diagnose disease early, fast and accurately,” said Rob Colones, president and CEO of Florence-based McLeod Health.

An MR scan provides physicians a real-time, internal image and is especially effective in examining internal organs, blood vessels, muscles, joints, tumors, and areas of infection without X-rays or surgery.

The MR machine works by creating a magnetic field, sending radio waves through the body, and then measuring the response with a computer. The end result is an image or picture of the inside of a person’s body.

The Florence plant annually produces 350 to 400 of the magnet units, which are about 7 feet in diameter and nearly 4 feet deep. The magnets are assembled into a larger unit that sells anywhere from $2 million to $5 million.

About one-third of the magnets used in MR machines are produced at the Florence plant, which has been in operation for 30 years. The plant uses 730 different parts from 120 vendors to make just one magnet, Folk said, adding that the plant indirectly supports 8,400 jobs.

The helium facility also should prove to be a money-saver for the company. GE Healthcare uses about 5.5 million liters of helium a year at the Florence plant, and dedicates another 6 million liters to servicing MR systems at hospitals, the company said.

Just one MR machine uses several thousand liters of the gas, which is contained in a vacuum-sealed system that surrounds the magnet.

The plant, visible from the interchange of interstates 20 and 95 on Florence’s west side, employs about 350 people, mostly welders, assemblers and engineers, Folk said. GE Healthcare is Florence County’s seventh-largest employer.

GE Healthcare is a division of GE, which is among the world’s largest companies with more than 300,000 employees worldwide.

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