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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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

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