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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Tetris and sleep deprivation: how we can help emergency workers cope with trauma

First responders are at serious risk of developing PTSD during events like the Paris attacks. 

Some people seem able to deal with anything. They save a stranger from bleeding out in a bombed restaurant, protect passers-by from heavily armed gunmen, pull dead and dying people out of collapsed buildings, and they keep going because it is their job. These people are first responders.

When trauma goes on for days, as it has recently in Paris, however, the odds of them bouncing back from the violence, death and injury they are witnessing rapidly diminishes. They are at greater risk of developing a severe stress reaction known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One study found that the worldwide rate of PTSD among first responders is 10 per cent, much higher than the 3.5 per cent rate among those not involved in rescue work.

Tetris to the rescue

So how best to address the problem? Research is in its infancy, but there are some promising studies. Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Cambridge has been looking at the benefits of playing Tetris, a video game, after a traumatic experience. The idea is that this could block the consolidation of traumatic memories so they don’t “flash back” later on.

For the study, her team first traumatised people by showing them distressing footage from public safety videos. The next day they invited them back into the lab to reactivate the memories with still images taken from the videos. One group then played Tetris for 12 minutes while the other sat quietly. Over the following week, the group who played Tetris had about 50 per cent fewer unwanted memories from the films compared to the group who didn’t.

The team concluded that playing Tetris helped individuals because it soaks up their visual processing capacity, making it harder for the brain to consolidate the visual parts of a traumatic memory.

Since it takes about six hours for the brain to cement a memory, the key is to play the game soon after trauma or within six hours of re-activating the traumatic memory. How long the helpful effects of playing Tetris will last and whether it will translate into helping people after real-life trauma is still unknown.

Talking it through

Other techniques, such as “updating”, taken from a highly-effective talking treatment for PTSD, may be more practical and easier to implement.

Like a detective, updating is a technique that focuses on finding new information and linking it to the case, the past memory. This is necessary because when the brain and body are in survival mode during trauma, the mind finds it difficult to encode all the relevant facts. Often key pieces of information that could make the memory less traumatic are lost. Updating links new information to someone’s memory of their trauma to make it less upsetting.

But can updating help to reduce unwanted memories after trauma?

We carried out a study, published in PLOS ONE, in which we traumatised people by showing them terrifying films of humans and animals in distress. We then divided our participants into three groups. One group watched the films again but were given new information about how long people suffered and whether or not they lived or died – essentially, they were updated. The second group watched the same films again but without the new information. And the third group watched films of humans and animals who were not in distress. The updated group had fewer traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms than the other two groups.

Updating is now being used by some UK emergency services. First responders will gather after critical incidents and update their memories of what happened before they go home.

Sleep deprivation

There are other techniques that may be helpful. One study found that depriving people of sleep may be useful in the aftermath of trauma.

But the same study found that a week after the trauma, people who had been deprived of sleep had the same number of unwanted memories as people who had slept well afterwards. Consequently, it remains unclear whether there would be any long-lasting benefits using this method. There are, however, certainly health risks linked to lack of sleep.

Still looking for a solution

To develop preventative interventions, we need to study newly-recruited emergency workers who haven’t yet suffered on-the-job trauma and follow them over time, spotting which “coping styles”, present before trauma, may predict their reactions afterwards.

For example, some people naturally react to stressful life events by dwelling on them, thinking about why they happened for hours on end. This strategy, called rumination, has been linked to PTSD in people who survived car crashes.

If rumination predicts PTSD in first responders, then preventative interventions could train people to spot when they are dwelling on an event and refocus their attention to the task at hand.

When we have identified which factors heighten emergency workers’ risk of developing PTSD, programmes can be developed to target those vulnerabilities. Only then can an intervention, directed at first responders most at risk of developing PTSD, properly protect them in their line of work.

The Conversation

Jennifer Wild is a Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.