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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

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