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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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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