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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It’s 2016, so why do printers still suck?

Hewlett Packard recently prevented third-party cartridges from working in their printers, but this is just the latest chapter of home printing's dark and twisted history. 

In order to initiate their children into adulthood, the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon weave stinging ants into gloves and ask teenage boys to wear them for a full ten minutes. The British have a similar rite of passage, though men, women, and children alike partake. At one point in their short, brutal little lives, every citizen must weep at the foot of a printer at 2am, alternatively stroking and swearing at it, before falling into a heap and repeating “But there is no paper jam” 21 times.

There are none alive that have escaped this fate, such is the unending crapness of the modern home printer. And against all odds, today printers have hit the news for becoming even worse, as a Hewlett Packard update means their machines now reject non-branded, third-party ink cartridges. Their printers now only work with the company’s own, more expensive ink.

Although it’s surprising that printers have become worse, we’re already very used to them not getting any better. The first personal printers were unleashed in 1981 and they seemingly received the same treatment as the humble umbrella: people looked at them and said, “What? No, this? No way this can be improved.”

It’s not true, of course, that printing technology has stagnated over the last 35 years. But in a world where we can 3D print clitorises, why can’t we reliably get our tax returns, Year 9 History projects, and insurance contracts from our screens onto an A4 piece of paper in less than two hours?

It’s more to do with business than it is technology. Inkjet printers are often sold at a loss, as many companies decide instead to make their money by selling ink cartridges (hence HP’s latest update). This is known as a “razor and blades” business model, whereby the initial item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It explains why your ink is so expensive, why it runs out so quickly, and the most common complaint of all: why your cyan cartridge has to be full in order to print in black and white.

But technology is complicit in the crime. HP’s new update utilises the chips on ink cartridges to tell whether a refill is one of their own, and have also previously been used to region-block cartridges so they can’t be sold on in other countries. Those little chips are also the thing that tells the printer when your ink is empty. Very good. Fine. Except in 2008, PC World found that some printers will claim the cartridges are empty when they are actually nearly half-full.

Back to business. Because this profit models means companies sell printers for so little, quality inevitably suffers. If they’re not selling them for much, companies will naturally try to keep the costs of making their printers down, and this is the reason for your “Load paper in tray two”s, your “Paper jam”s and your “Would you like to cancel this print job? Nope, sorry, too late, here are 100 copies.”

So why are printers bad at networking? This isn’t a set up to a lame joke (unless the joke is, of course, your life as you try to get your wireless printer and your PC to connect). There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this, other than the fact that Bluetooth is still fairly patchy anyway. Some errors, just as you suspected, happen for no bloody damn good bloody reason at all.

On a bigger scale, the printers in your office are difficult because they work harder than you ever have. It’s a stressful job, for sure, and this naturally comes with errors and jams. The reason they are so hard to fix after the inevitable, however, again comes back to capitalism. Because printers don’t have a universal design, most companies will protect theirs, meaning you can’t know the specifics in order to fix a device yourself. This way, they also make money by sending out their own personal technicians.

Thankfully, although every personal printer you’ve ever bought seems to be on collaborative quest to drive you to madness, there is an easy fix. Buy a laser printer instead. Though the device and the replacement toner cartridges are more expensive, in the long-run you’ll most likely save money. In the meantime, there's only one solution: PC load letter. 

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