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Did you know that the world was running out of helium?
Back in 2012, an article in Popular Mechanics magazine prophesied a coming global helium shortage. Many other sources agreed. But things have taken an optimistic tone of late.
Is Helium Rare?
Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe! But on Earth, helium is relatively rare. Helium makes up 5 parts per million of our atmosphere. Pretty low, right? In the earth’s crust, helium is only 8 parts per billion!
Helium is made by the breakdown of radioactive material – mostly uranium – in the earth’s crust. The breakdown is composed of alpha particles – which are basically helium nuclei (2 protons, 2 neutrons). Eventually, helium makes its way to groundwater and natural gas.
Natural gas deposits are the world’s source of helium. America’s natural gas deposits are especially helium-rich. The United States produces over half of the world’s helium, according to the USGS.
The Helium Shortage?
The U.S. National Helium Reserve at one time had over a billion cubic meters of helium, about half of the world’s reserves. The Reserve was founded in the 1920s, to be used in the nation’s (largely imaginary) fleet of airships. The Reserve was later used in the Cold War for rocket-fuel for nuclear missiles and spacecraft. The Reserve was comprised of five production plants and over 400 miles of pipes.
But that’s a lot of equipment to maintain. After the Cold War, the Reserve became too expensive and racked up over a $1 billion in debt. So in 1996, Congress decided to sell off the helium. Everything must go! The price of helium plummeted. Uses increased as prices decreased. It was so cheap, no one bothered with recycling.
Later, fear began to settle in the hearts of the scientific world. Helium is used in many scientific applications – like MRIs, industrial welding, fiber optic production, rocket fuel, etc. It is not what you would call a renewable resource. It escapes into outer space and is lost forever.
Helium Sales Today
So Congress changed its mind. In 2013, Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act. In a nutshell, there are auction sales now – with a lot of legal hoopla – that now establish a better market price for helium, and in the process, spur private industry to start to pick up the slack. This will help pay off the Reserve’s debt faster. But there won’t be much of the Reserve left afterwards.
The Reserve’s size has diminished from over a billion cubic feet to less than 250 million cubic feet, according to the Bureau of Land Management’s last estimates. According to an article in the New York Times, the Reserve most likely won’t survive another 5 or 6 years.
So Now What
All is not lost, however. The shortage has inspired a lot of “helium prospecting.” According to a Newsweek article, a “world-class” natural gas field in Tanzania has an estimated recovery of over 54 billion cubic feet of helium. According to a press release by the European Association of Geochemistry, researchers in the western U.S. and Canada believe that the helium potential in wells has been greatly underestimated. For that matter, helium recycling is beginning to be a scientific norm. And the rising price of helium (doubling in the last 15 years) will create its own momentum for conservation.
The National Helium Reserve was fixture in the scientific community for almost a century. Its depletion created a huge, unnatural drop in helium prices. The new price shock – and ideas of shortage – are a natural result of the new market equilibrium. On the positive side, this could inspire not only new conservation and appreciation of this remarkable resource, but could also be the beginning of a new age of earth exploration…and a greater understanding of our natural world.
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The ego doesn’t exist in our mind alone. We extend the ego to everything we touch. Even to the things we can’t “touch.” This psychological quirk comes in various forms with various names. But for this article, it is called the endowment effect.
The Endowment Effect
The endowment effect is the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them.
It’s Mine and Therefore Valuable
In a 1990 paper, the famous psychologists Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, and Jack Knetsch performed an experiment. They gave coffee mugs to a group of people (called the Sellers) and asked at what price point—from 25 cents to $9.25—they would be willing to sell it. A second group (called the Choosers) didn’t have mugs, but had to indicate at what price they would rather have the mug or the money instead. A third group (called the Buyers) had choose at what price they would buy the mug.
Simple market situation, right? Wrong! In one trial of this experiment, the Sellers wanted an average of $7.12 for the mug. But on average, the Buyers were willing to pay only $2.87. The Choosers magic number was $3.12. In another trial, the Sellers and the Choosers valued the mug at $7.00 and $3.50, respectively. Sellers usually want twice as much as Choosers were willing to pay.
Now mind you, the Sellers were given the mugs for free. They could have sold the mug for 25 cents! But no. The moment the Sellers thought that the mug was theirs, their estimation of its value skyrocketed.
It’s Mine and I Don’t Like Change
In a 1989 paper, economist Jack Knetsch performed his own endowment effect experiment. Knetsch asked one group of students to choose between a coffee mug and a chocolate bar. Of these students, 44 percent wanted the chocolate bar, 56 percent wanted mug. In other words, the students thought the items were roughly equal in value.
Knetsch gave a second group only coffee mugs, but later gave them the option to exchange for chocolate bar later if they wanted. He gave a third group nothing but chocolate bars, but they could exchange for mugs later, if they wanted.
About half of the students should have traded the items, right? No! Only 11 percent of the mug-owning students wanted to trade, and only 10 percent of chocolate bar-owning students wanted to exchange for mugs. The vast majority of students didn’t want to part with what they had now that they had (“owned”) it!
Mine Is Good, Yours Not So Much
You can own objects. But you can also “own” beliefs. Once anybody threatens your “object,” you feel threatened.
The mere ownership effect is the hypothesis that people who own a good tend to evaluate it more positively than people who do not. Sometimes we associate the value of the object highly just because we own it…and we value ourselves (associative ownership). James Beggan examines this in closer detail.
We see the endowment effect (and ownership effect) around us every day. We see it in that pile of useless junk that your dad refuses to sell. We see it in mothers who insist that their children are “geniuses.” We see it in people who rabidly dislike those who disagree with them.
The ego is a tricky thing. If we don’t learn to control it, the ego could end up “owning” us.
Beggan, James K. "On the social nature of nonsocial perception: The mere ownership effect." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 62 (2): 229–237.
Kahneman, Daniel, Jack L. Knetsch,and Richard Thaler, "Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem," Journal of Political Economy, December 1990, 98, 1325-1348.
Knetsch, Jack L., "The Endowment Effect and Evidence of Nonreversible Indifference Curves," American Economic Review, 1989, 79, 1277-1284.
In northern Chile, there is a place called the Salar de Atacama. During the last Ice Age, it was a large lake, but now it's one of the driest spots on Earth. All that remains now is a salar, or salt flat.
The brine found beneath the surface is processed through a series of evaporative pools, which concentrate certain elements. At the end of this series, the brine takes on a sickly yellow-green color. Why? Because of the lithium concentration.
Without lithium, the Wireless Revolution grinds to a halt!
The "Saudi Arabia of Lithium"
Cell phones, smart phones, laptops, tablets, and even electric cars all run on the magic of lithium batteries. Lithium batteries have become crucial to modern living. The Salar de Atacama, called the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”, provides the world with 30 percent of its lithium needs.
The lithium-rich salt comes from the unusual chemistry of the surrounding mountains. The Pacific ocean floor (Nazca Plate) burrows beneath South America - and has been for millions of years - creating the Andes Mountains and many volcanoes. Some lavas, especially rhyolites, are very lithium-rich. Rain leached lithium away into valleys and formed ancient lakes. Today the lakes are gone. But below the surface, the brine remains and can be processed for its precious lithium.
The Modern Super-Battery
What’s so special about lithium batteries?
Batteries create a stream of electrons. In your car’s lead-acid battery, electrons are pulled off of lead atoms. Lead is a very heavy, with an atomic weight of 207. But, lithium is the third-lightest element in the universe! Lithium is the lightest of all metals, with an atomic weight of about 7 (thirty times less than lead).
Therefore, lithium can provide the same electrons without the weight. Lithium batteries are very small and very powerful, but they’re also volatile with a high heat output. In the mid-2000s, Sony had to recall many of its batteries because some laptops were catching on fire!
Seth Fletcher’s highly readable book "Bottled Lightning" describes the evolution of the lithium battery in copious detail, from its conception in the 1970s, its evolution in the 1980s, and to its implementation in the 1990s. Portable phones started out so heavy that they were only portable in vehicles (the “car phones”). Smaller lithium batteries transformed bulky cell phones into smaller devices that could fit in your pocket.
Increased power. Increased portability. Voilá! The wireless revolution was born!
Are We Running Low on Lithium?
The greater the demand for cell phones (and smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), the greater the demand for lithium. If the electric car were to become mainstream, the world lithium demand would explode exponentially. William Tahil once predicted a kind of future "Lithium Crisis," similar to the predicted Oil Crisis. Geologist R. Keith Evans countered that world lithium reserves were sufficient for generations to come.
The problem with such predictions is that global lithium reserve estimates change every year, as do global rates of consumption. For that matter, lithium – unlike oil – is recyclable.
Our geology underfoot is a treasure. The earth’s tin and copper ores supplied our Bronze Age. Iron ores forged our Iron Age. Coal and oil fueled the Industrial Age. But the blood of the Modern Age is lithium! The geology within our earth keeps mixing with the imagination in the human mind. We can only guess at what Age comes next.
Fletcher, Seth. Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011.
Koerner, Brendan I. “The Saudi Arabia of Lithium.” Forbes 2008.
“The Trouble with Lithium: Implications of PHEV Production for Lithium Demand.” Tahil, William. December, 2006. Accessed on 24 November, 2013. http://www.evworld.com/library/lithium_shortage.pdf
“An Abundance of Lithium.” Evans, R. Keith. March, 2008. Accessed on 24 November, 2013. http://lithiumabundance.blogspot.com
U.S. Geological Survey. 2013. Mineral Commodity Survey 2013: Lithium. Reston, VA, USA: U.S. Geological Survey http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs-2013-lithi.pdf Accessed on 24 November 2013.
In his best-selling book “The Game,” Neil Strauss revealed one of his tenets called the “gold vs diamond” debate – men are driven ultimately by sex (“gold”) and women ultimately want fulfillment of comfort fantasies (“the diamond”). Of course, this is pretty cliché. These are just cultural stereotypes.
The worst thing about stereotypes is not that they are false, but that there is some truth in them. “Some truth” is not the same as the only truth! But still, playing a stereotype can be a way of playing the odds. Sound fishy? It will.
The Birds and the Bees…and Fish?
There is not a one-to-one correlation in the behavior between humans and animals. For example, animals lack our abstract conceptions, like morality, music, honor, or sympathy. But the amazing (or disconcerting) thing is how similarly humans and animals do act - especially in primal activities, like in mating.
In 1992, the biologists Lee Dugatkin and Jean Godin made a study – which is pretty well-known in academia – involving the mating behavior of guppies. They discovered that small females by themselves will choose mates based on their instincts.
But in a group, something else happens.
Large female guppies have rank in the group. Large size is a sign of longevity, and therefore a sign of evolutionary success. Small females will likely abandon their first mating choice – to pursue the males that large females pursue.
Dugatkin and Godin believed that a female’s choice of mate wasn’t just driven by individual genetics, but also by cultural cues.
In 2002, two biological researchers named Klaudia Witte and Michael Ryan performed another similar study using sailfin molly fish. In this study, they discovered that a male fish will choose a female who is already accompanied by a male, rather than pursue a lone female. And a female molly fish will choose a male fish who is already accompanied by a female.
The fish only pursued mates that others were pursuing!
Your reference group determines your social value, and therefore it determines your options.
How Does This Help Me?
There are many cultures and sub-cultures in humankind. But the key here is your culture.
Your reference group (culture) determines your social value. Whoever has rank in your reference group will determine your own social value…and influence your mate selection. That’s why there are generalized dating sites (e.g. Match.com), but there are also dating sites geared specifically towards specific sub-groupings – e.g., Jewish, rural, Christian, professional, minority, etc.
But the studies show us something more too: We want what others have!
Ladies, you can bring male dates to weddings, office parties, and bars that you have no romantic/sexual interest in. The male escort not only gives you external validation, it improves your perceived social value and can cultivate new male interest, even jealousy. Next time you flirt, your attention will have more social value. Next time you ask a man out, your regard will have more power.
Guys, next time do not go out with your male buddies. Find a woman to go out with you instead - not as a romantic target per se, but as a way to enhance your social value. If she’s just a friend, that’s fine. Her presence still enhances your value. The more attractive this woman is, the more other women will notice – and increase your social value.
That’s why this is a frequent trope in TV and movies. It’s based on reality – our culture and system of social values.
Strauss, Neil. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists. Regan Books, 2005.
Dugatkin, L. A. & Godin, J.-G. J. 1992. Reversal of female mate choice by copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 249, 179–184
Witte, Klaudia and Michael J. Ryan. 2002. Mate choice copying in the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna in the wild. Animal Behaviour, 2002, 63, 943–949
John Grant is an antiques expert, but he’s more famous as the author of the Lovejoy series of novels. In the novels, Lovejoy (an antiques forger and all-around scoundrel) explains many scams of the antiques trade, including auction scams and cons. Here are some.
Scams Made by the Auctioneers
1 – Bids “Off The Wall”
The auctioneer pretends to see a bidder on the side or in the back to bump up the price. Let’s say the price for an item is $1,200; you raise your hand to indicate a bid for $1,300. The auctioneer pretends to take a $1,300 bid “off the wall,” then immediately comes to you – so quickly that your hand is still in the air – for a $1,400 bid. The auctioneer moves so quickly that you don’t have time to react or object. If you’re sitting up front or in the middle, you might think this “off the wall” bid was legitimate. Sitting in the back, you could see that there wasn’t any such bid at all.
This scam is also called taking a bid “off the chandelier.”
2 – The Bounce
This is a less-nuanced version of the previous scam. It happened to my dad at an auction in Indianapolis. He was bidding on a car; twenty-four hundred was the price. The auctioneer pointed at my dad and said, “I have four thousand!”
The auctioneer “bounced” the price – considerably – while my dad’s hand was in the air.
In front of a crowd of four hundred people, my dad shouted and called the auctioneer out on the trick. The crowd laughed. The auctioneer mumbled apology, then mumbled something about how it was dad’s fault and continued.
That is your only defense. The auctioneer hopes that you’ll be intimidated by the crowd. But you will have to speak up! This is your money and you must defend it!
3 – The Nelson
If there are friends or cronies in the audience, the auctioneer may want to shuck items to them at a lower price. The auctioneer will pretend not to see you raise your hand, turning a “blind eye” to your bid. Then he cries “Sold!” and closes the bidding quickly.
In England, this scam is called “the nelson,” named after Lord Nelson’s famous trick at Copenhagen.
Again, your defense is to speak up, before the auctioneer can say “Sold.”
Scams by the Bidders
4 – The Milk-Drop
There are at least two people in this scam, though it helps to include a dishonest auctioneer. An item is sold in auction to a Fake Bidder. After the auction, the Fake Bidder goes to the auctioneers, but claims he was bidding on a different item. The Fake Bidder fakes an angry outburst (“Just try to sue me!”) and leaves. Auctioneers hate to have unsold merchandise, especially if they are working on commission.
But who should show up? A Saving Angel! The Saving Angel pretends to overhear this exchange and quickly says, “Oh! That item is available again!” and makes a much lower offer. The auction is over. What else can they do? So they sell the item at a much lower price!
5 – The Shuff
There are at least two people needed for this trick. Let’s say you have a reputation for knowing quality items. When you bid, others will bid against you – trusting that what you bid on must be worth it. This drives the price up. But if you stop bidding, then the others stop bidding too. You drop out – but your secret partner continues bidding. You “shuff” or shuffle the bidding to your partner.
6 – The Lop
Let’s say the bid on the item is beyond your limit. You drop out. But you might still have a chance. Often, “buyer’s regret” will afflict the winning bidders. After the auction, people might find that they overspent, or maybe they enjoyed the bidding process more than the item itself. So after the auction, you just walk up to that person and say, “Excuse me, you won the bid on Item 12. Would you be interested in selling it?” It just might work.
7 – The Waltz
Before the auction, people examine the merchandise. Miscellaneous junk is sold in lots. Looking through the boxes, people might find a pretty little item that they want. What do dishonest people do? They hide that item under the bottom flaps of the cardboard box, or even move the item to another lot. If other people don’t know about the item, the crook gets something he wants for a rock-bottom price.
Referring to an auction, Lovejoy says, “Beneath the kindly exterior…beats the scarlet emotion of pure greed.”
Be careful. Be wise to the scams. And if possible, read the Lovejoy novels.
(Jonathon Gash is the pen name of John Grant)
Gash, Jonathon. The Firefly Gadroon. St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Gash, Jonathon. The Lies of Fair Ladies. St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.