Friday, March 25, 2011

6 Important Things You Didn't Know We're Running Out Of

6.Helium
Actually, if you have benefited from a piece of technology more complex than a sharp rock tied to a stick, it was probably made with the help of helium. Helium has the lowest boiling point of all materials on Earth, which means it's cooler than a ninja Fonzie in sunglasses. Basically every high-tech industry imaginable has uses for helium, from chilling MRI magnets to producing fiber optics and LCD screens.

But according to Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson, the problem is that the U.S. government is giving away helium like a discount VCR warehouse: as much as it can, as cheap as it can. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to sell off our helium stockpile by 2015. This has forced the price of the gas way, way lower than it should be, considering how little of the stuff is actually left in the world (Richardson says a balloon's worth would cost $100 if the market were allowed to set the price)

 5.Chocolate
Actually, the majority of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where the plantations are often tended to by slave children, but there is such thing as fair trade cocoa beans, with guaranteed "No slave labor!" certificates and stuff. Problem solved, right? Nope.  The fact of the matter is that, currently, cultivating cocoa beans just isn't worth it to the average West African farmer.

Not only is tending to cocoa trees insanely time-consuming (it takes up to five years to grow a new crop), but everything has to be done by hand in often unbearable heat. And at the end of the day, the average cocoa farmer can expect to earn about 80 cents a day for his trouble. That satisfying feeling that his product is contributing to America's obesity epidemic is just not enough anymore, so in fewer than 20 years, chocolate might become an expensive rarity, like caviar.

4.Medical Isotopes
Medical isotopes are substances that give off short bursts of radiation, after which they decay and become useless. They're used in medical scanners, and each day, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. go through procedures involving medical isotopes to detect bone cancer or diagnose kidney and brain disorders. So if we would ever start running low on those radioactive health thingies -- like right now, for example -- it could mean having to pay more for inferior hospital care in the future.

About 80 percent of medical isotope procedures make use of a substance called technetium-99m, which has a life span of about 12 hours, meaning it cannot be stockpiled and has to be produced fresh over and over. Naturally, because this is such a crucial part of nationwide healthcare, there's only one major company in North America that makes technetium-99m -- Chalk River Laboratories. And because it hasn't been operational since May 2009, we are now in year two of a massive medical isotopes shortage.

3.Tequila
The Mexican cactus booze has been in trouble for the last couple of years, and high demand and diseased crops have seriously threatened its supply in the past. But now, we might actually be looking at a possible eradication of tequila as a worldwide commodity.

In 2006, the Bush administration introduced new regulations to begin substituting gasoline with biofuels made from corn-based ethanol, the idea being to ease America's dependency on foreign oil. One side effect was that ethanol prices skyrocketed to the point that farmers in Mexico started abandoning their old crops in favor of corn to ship off to the U.S.
Unfortunately, this included destroying crops of agave cactus (from which tequila is made) by setting them on fire, because that's how they roll in Mexico.  

2.Phosphorus
Researchers from Australia, Europe and the United States agree that the worldwide focus on production of bio-fuels can in all reality use up all of the planet's phosphorus. And when guys from three continents can agree on anything other than their mutual hatred for one another, you know they have to be right. The situation is getting so desperate that Sweden has actually started designing toilets that will extract the precious phosphorus from our urine

China is already hoarding all the phosphorus it has, which hasn't exactly done anything to calm the global markets. From 2007 to 2008, phosphate rock prices went up 700 percent, and the demand might continue to rise 2.3 percent a year, seeing as the majority of nations aren't too keen on starving to death in the future. The remaining phosphorus is located chiefly in Russia and Africa, whose reserves might one day basically give them the keys to the planet.
The only alternative is extracting phosphorus from the seabed but the costs would be staggering, and we'd risk running into and pissing off Cthulhu.

1.Water
T. Boone Pickens is a Texan ex-oilman and currently the biggest private owner of water in the United States, with access to most of the Texan portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds more than a quadrillion gallons of the liquid. Pickens has invested more than $100 million and eight years of work in acquiring the rights to this much "blue gold" and now plans to sell it to Dallas or some other major U.S. city desperately running out of water. There are plenty to choose from.

If you're hoping that Pickens is just some crazy rich guy, it's worth mentioning that he wasn't the first to have this idea. To become a water baron, Pickens had to fight for 15 years with the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which tried to buy his reserves out from under him. Water drilling is serious business.


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