A market that won't go pop: why helium balloons could one day cost £100 each

Once the US - which supplies 80 per cent of the world's helium - stops selling off its store at an artificially low price, we have a problem.

Here’s a new word for you: phytonugget. It’s a tiny bit of gold, the dimensions of which are roughly half the thickness of a human hair. It doesn’t sound particularly interesting until you hear that it grows on trees. Not all trees, mind. Only trees that are sitting above a deposit of gold ore. Trees mine their soil for water and nutrients; the gold comes up with the good stuff and gets deposited in the tree’s leaves.

Earth science engineers in Kensington, Australia made the discovery. So no more expensive mining and prospecting: you can now do an X-ray analysis of a few twigs and leaves to work out where the gold is buried.

If only we could do the same with lithium. One of the few upsides of Chinese involvement in the next generation of nuclear reactors to be built in the UK is that we may not face the woes now troubling the US.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a warning that an imminent shortage of lithium for its 65 pressurised water reactors “places their ability to continue to provide electricity at some risk”. Every year, the US gets through about 300kg of the isotope known as lithium-7, an essential ingredient to prevent corrosion of water pipes in reactors. Because lithium-7 is a byproduct of processes to produce nuclear warheads, and the US is letting its stockpiles shrink, the US no longer manufactures any. That leaves China and Russia as the only suppliers.

Given the links to weapons programmes, the amounts available in these two countries are a closely guarded secret. With China embarking on a vast nuclear construction programme, the US is facing the possibility that there won’t be enough lithium-7 to go round. The GAO recommended that the US think about restarting domestic production of lithium and look into the possibility of reducing its reactors’ reliance on the element. Both options will take years and the US may not have that long.

There is precedent for this type of problem. When the US department of homeland security started to build a stockpile of bomb detectors for use at airports, it quickly used up reserves of the helium-3 isotope that the detectors needed. Helium-3 is another byproduct of warhead production and the US had stopped making any in 1988.

The biggest losers were the scientists who use the isotope to perform research at below -272° Celsius – helium-3 being the only way to get temperatures so low. And with their stores depleted, many researchers had no choice but to abandon their experiments.

It’s not clear which department is going to be blamed for the impending shortage of the gas that gives our party balloons a lift, though. Supplies of the lighter-than-air isotope helium-4 are falling rapidly. The US supplies 80 per cent of world demand but is trying to get rid of its reserves by 2015 and so it sells helium at an artificially low price.

That means helium consumers such as hospitals – it is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines – and party suppliers are buoyant for now. But once the helium is all gone we’ll have to pull it from the air. That will be so expensive we’ll be filling party balloons at £100 a pop; there will be no squeaky-voiced shenanigans at that price.

We desperately need to find more natural deposits of helium. It does occur, like gold ore, in underground rocks but locating it has proved even harder than finding extractable gold ore. If you spot any trees floating slightly above ground level, let the GAO know.

In the future, helium balloons could cost £100 a pop. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Chinese loan sharks are using nudes as collateral. Is this the grim future of revenge porn?

The economics of shame. 

When female students in Guangdong, a southern province in China, applied for a small loan, they were met with a very specific demand. Send naked photos of yourself holding your ID cards, they were told – or you won’t get the money. If you don’t pay up, we’ll make the photos public.

This is according to Nandu Daily, the area’s local newspaper, but has also been reported by the Associated Press and the Financial Times. The FT places the trend in the context of the Chinese economy, where peer to peer lending sites like Jiedaibao, the platform where the students allegedly contacted the lenders, are common. Thanks to the country’s slowing economy, the paper argues, lenders are increasingly intent on making sure they’ll be repaid.

As a result, there have also been reports of property destruction and even beatings by loan sharks. Part of the problem is that these are unregulated lenders who operate through an online platform. In this case, Jiedaibao says the agreement about photos was made via different communication channels, and told the FT: “This is an illegal offline trade between victims and lenders who did it by making use of the platform.” 

This new use of naked photos in this case, though, plays to the ways that shame is now used as a weapon, especially online – and the fact that it can essentially be monetised.

Revenge porn is a huge and growing problem. As Jon Ronson noted in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the internet offers a unique space in which shamings (over a naked photo, or an unwise comment) can be transmitted all over the world almost instantly. For some, this threat is simply too much to cope with, as it was for the growing number teenagers who have committed suicide after being blackmailed with naked photos

It’s telling, too, that the students targeted with these demands were, reportedly at least, women. Most victims of revenge porn are also women. The shame brought down on women who appear in these photos is not so much about their nakedness, but the implication that they've behaved in a sexual way. In China, virginity is still highly valued in marriage, and your family and friends would likely take the spread of naked photos of you extremely seriously. In Behind the Red Door, Sex in China , Richard Burger notes:

Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night.

The strange story of these students and their loans highlights two important points. First, as anti-loan shark campaigners have argued for decades, “free choice” in signing up to extortionate fees or demands when taking out a loan is a misnomer when you’re constrained by economic need and desperation.

But second, we can’t allow the shame around female sexuality to become a commodity. We need to both protect women's rights and persecute those who share images without consent, but also fight the stigma that makes these shamings possible in the first place. It's not acceptable that the suggestion of sexual activity can still be used to ruin women's lives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.