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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The second coming of Gordon Ramsay

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

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