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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times