Researchers at the Boston University Photonics Center have developed a new metamaterial that can improve the quality of an MRI scan, as well as reduce the duration of the procedure.

The developers say that their magnetic metamaterial could be used as an additive technology to increase the imaging power of lower-strength MRI machines. The results of their experimentation have been published in Communications Physics.

This could enable practices to run scans on more patients and decrease the costs associated with MRI scans, while bypassing the risks that come with using higher-strength machines.

MRI scans use magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of organs and tissues like spinal cords and joints, which care providers use to diagnose potential problems or diseases. This can take an hour or longer, with patients facing long wait times when scheduling an examination and a big bill at the end of it all.

The metamaterial designed by the researchers is made up of an array of units called helical resonators – three-centimetre tall structures created from 3D printed plastic coils of thin copper wire – which can grouped into a flexible structure pliable enough to cover the part of a patient’s body that needs scanning.

This structure resonates with the magnetic field of the MRI, “turning up the volume” of the image generated. This means that the tesla of the MRI machine does not need to be increased to quickly generate a clearer image.

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Boston University professor of radiology Stephan Anderson said: “This [magnetic metamaterial] creates a clearer image that may be produced at more than double the speed of a current MRI scan.”

To test the array, Anderson and his team scanned chicken legs, tomatoes and grapes using a 1.5 T machine. The magnetic metamaterial yielded a 4.2-fold increase in the signal-to-noise ratio. This could mean that lower magnetic fields could be used to take clearer images than currently possible by encasing various body parts in the new metamaterial.

Boston University professor of engineering Xin Zhang said: “A lot of people are surprised by its simplicity. It’s not some magic material. The ‘magical’ part is the design and the idea.”