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?

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.