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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"Death to all Jews": Why Disney dropped YouTube's biggest star PewDiePie

The Minecraft vlogger turned internet celebrity's taste for shock comedy was too much for the family-focused corporation. 

Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most-subscribed star after he paid two Sri Lankan men five dollars to hold up a sign that read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

Feel free to read that sentence again, it’s not going anywhere.

A still from PewDiePie's video, via YouTube

PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers on YouTube, where his videos about gaming earned him over $15m last year. The 27-year-old, whose content is popular with children, came under fire this month after the Wall Street Journal investigated anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In one video, a man dressed as Jesus says “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong”, while in another Kjellberg used freelance marketplace Fiverr to pay two men to hold up the offensive sign. The videos have since been deleted.

Jumpcut.

The Walt Disney Company became affiliated with PewDiePie after they bought Maker Studios, a network of YouTube stars, for nearly $1bn in 2014. Following the WSJ’s investigation, Maker dropped the star, stating: “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”

When you sack a YouTube Star, makes no difference who they are.

Via Wall Street Journal

But why should the story stop there? Neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer are now defending PewDiePie, while the notoriously politically-incorrect 4Chan forum /pol/ have called him “our guy”.  

In his defence, Kjellberg wrote a blog post denying an affiliation with anti-Semitic groups and explained his actions, writing: “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.” In a video last December the star also said: "It's extremely annoying how I can't make jokes on my channel without anyone quoting it as actual facts, like something I actually said", before dressing as a soldier and listening to one of Hitler's speeches while smiling. 

Pause.

(If all of this sounds familiar, recall when disgraced YouTuber Sam Pepper claimed a video in which he groped unsuspecting females was a “social experiment”).

Play.

And yet the story still isn’t over. Disney have learned a hard lesson about assuming that YouTubers are the squeaky clean fairy-tale princes and princesses they often appear to be. Shay Butler, one of the original founders of Maker Studios, yesterday quit the internet after it was alleged he sent sexual messages to a cam girl via Twitter.

Butler is one of the original "family vloggers", and has spent nine years uploading daily videos of his five children to YouTube. A practicing Mormon, Butler has become emblematic of family values on the site. “My heart is sick,” he wrote on Twitter, neither confirming nor denying the allegations of his infidelity, “I have struggled with alcoholism for years… My purpose is to rehab.” 

The result is a very dark day for YouTube, which has now dropped Kjellberg from its premier advertising network, Google Preferred, and cancelled the second series of the star's reality show, Scare PewDiePie

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