America’s dominance of the global helium market is ending … NOT every commodity contributes both to the gaiety of existence and life-saving technology. Helium does not just fill balloons and render voices squeaky. In gaseous form the inert, lighter-than-air gas is used in a range of applications from welding and fibre-optic technology to deep-sea diving. Super-cold liquid helium is essential to making and running the superconducting magnets for MRI scanners and to manufacturing electronic devices from TVs to phones. The world stands on the edge of a “helium cliff” precisely because the gas has always proved so useful. ... Unless American politicians can come to an agreement by October 7th, supplies could face a sudden and dramatic shortfall. A third of the world’s helium comes from an underground reservoir in Texas built up under government auspices and run by the Bureau of Land Management. Such was the supposed strategic value of helium, a by-product of natural gas, that a reserve was created in 1925 to supply the gas to inflate airships. So jealously did America guard its helium that other countries had to fill dirigibles with flammable hydrogen—the Hindenburg was one of dozens that went up in flames as a result.
The financial crisis has fuelled a huge expansion of organised crime in Europe with 3,600 criminal syndicates now active across the continent, profiting even from such prosaic products as household detergents, the head of Europol has warned. … Rob Wainwright, director of the EU’s crime-fighting agency, said Europe’s black market in counterfeit foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals and machine parts doubled to a value of about €2bn in the early years of the recession. … The groups are profiting from an increased demand for cheap goods and finding ways to cash in on EU member states’ attempts to boost tax revenues … a new breed of cyber criminals in Russia, Ukraine and other parts of eastern Europe are carrying out increasingly sophisticated online attacks on financial services groups. … In the UK, for instance, the VAT rate increased in early 2011 from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, making any fake claim on this tax instantly more profitable. VAT fraud is now estimated to be worth €100bn a year across Europe.
Igor Pasternak started thinking about airships when he was twelve. Back then, in the nineteen-seventies, he loved rockets. One night, he was curled up in the soft green chair that doubled as his bed, in the two-room apartment where he lived with his parents, his little sister, and his grandmother, in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine. He was reading a magazine aimed at young inventors, and he came across an article about blimps. He saw old photographs of imposing wartime zeppelins and read about another kind of airship, which had never made it off the drawing board: an airship that carried not passengers but cargo. It would be able to haul hundreds of tons of mining equipment to remote regions in Siberia in one go, the article said—no roads, runways, or infrastructure needed. Just lift, soar, and drop. ... A blimp is just one type of airship, usually a small one, and always nonrigid, meaning that it has no structural hull; its shape is maintained by the pressure of the lifting gas within. It’s basically a balloon with a rudder and a means of propulsion. The first one was built in 1852, by the French engineer Jules Henri Giffard; it was a hundred and forty-four feet long, with a propeller and a three-horsepower steam engine. In 1900, in Germany, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin built something much larger and stronger, adding a rigid aluminum framework—long internal girders, attached to flexible rings, that formed a kind of rib cage. A number of discrete cells, each filled with hydrogen, fit inside the rib cage, and the entire ship was covered with fabric. The first of these, the LZ 1, was four hundred and twenty feet long, and Zeppelin kept making them bigger. He started the world’s first airline company, DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft), and by 1914 the service had made more than fifteen hundred flights, transporting upward of ten thousand people. Before long, Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and other countries began building airships.