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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Pupils need internet classes? Here are 41 lessons they should learn

Forget privacy and security, here's what to do when a black and blue dress looks white and gold. 

It is imperative that children are taught how to survive and thrive on the internet, claims a new House of Lords report. According to the Lords Communication Committee, pupils need to learn how to stay safe, avoid addictive games, and become “digitally literate”.

It’s hard to argue with the report, which is a great step forward in acknowledging that the internet now basically = life. Yet although it is crucial that children learn how to stay private and secure online, there are also some equally crucial and not-at-all-flippant pieces of information that the youth urgently need to know. Here are the first 41 lessons in that curriculum.

  1. To figure out how much to donate towards your mate’s charity half-marathon, half X OR double Y, where X is the amount paid by their mum and Y is the amount donated by your closest rival, Becky
  2. Don’t mention that it’s snowing
  3. If – for some reason – you talk about bombs in a Facebook message, follow this up with “Hi Theresa May” in case Theresa May is looking, and then Theresa May will think you are just joking
  4. If you are on a train and you are annoyed about the train, do not tweet @ the social media manager who runs the account for the train, because they are not, in fact, the train
  5. If a Facebook meme starts “Only 10 per cent of people can get this puzzle right” – know that lies are its captain
  6. It’s not pronounced me-me
  7. Never say me-me nor meem, for they should not be discussed out loud
  8. People can tell if you’ve watched their Instagram stories
  9. People can’t tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos
  10. People can tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos if you accidentally Like one – in this circumstance, burn yourself alive
  11. Jet fuel can melt steel beams
  12. If a dog-walking photo is taken in the woods and no one uploads it; did it even happen?
  13. Google it before you share it
  14. Know that Khloe Kardashian does not look that way because of a FitTea wrap
  15. Do not seek solace in #MondayMotivation – it is a desolate place
  16. Respect JK Rowling
  17. Please read an article before you comment about a point that the article specifically rebutted in great detail in order to prepare for such comments that alas, inevitably came
  18. Don’t be racist, ok?
  19. Never, under any circumstances, wade into the Facebook comment section under an article about Jeremy Corbyn
  20.  If a dress looks white and gold to some people and black and blue to some others, please just go outside
  21. Open 200 tabs until you are crippled with anxiety. Close none of the tabs
  22. Despite the fact it should make you cringe, “smol puppers” is the purest evolution of language. Respect that
  23. Take selfies, no matter what anyone says
  24. Watch Zoella ironically until the lines of irony blur and you realise that the 20 minutes you immerse yourself into her rose-gold life are the only minutes of peace in your agonising day but also, what’s wrong with her pug? I hope her pug is ok
  25. Nazi Furries are a thing. Avoid
  26. Use Facebook’s birthday reminder to remember that people exist and delete them from your Friends list
  27. When a person you deleted from your Friends list inexplicably comes up to you IRL and says “Why?” pretend that your little cousin Jeff got into your account
  28. Don’t let your little cousin Jeff into your account
  29. “Like” the fact your friend got engaged even if you don’t actually like the fact she is reminding you of the gradual ebbing away of your youth
  30. No one cares about your political opinion and if they act like they do then I regret to inform you, they want to have sex with you
  31. Please don’t leave a banterous comment on your local Nando’s Facebook page, for it is not 2009
  32. Accept that the viral Gods choose you, you do not choose them
  33. Joke about your mental health via a relatable meme that is actually an agonising scream into the void
  34. Share texts from your mum and mock them with internet strangers because even though she pushed you out of her vagina and gave up her entire life to help you thrive as a person, she can’t correctly use emojis
  35. Follow DJ Khaled
  36. Decide that “Best wishes” is too blah and “Sincerely” is too formal and instead sign off your important email with “Happy bonfire night”” even though that is not a thing people say
  37. If someone from primary school adds you as Friend in 15 years, accept them but never speak again
  38. The mute button is God’s greatest gift
  39. Do not tell me a clown will kill me after midnight if I don’t like your comment because that is not a promise you can keep
  40. Don’t steal photos of other people’s pets
  41. Accept that incorrect "your"s and "you’re"s are not going anywhere and save yourself the time 

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