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The Most Expensive Materials in the World

Written by Kevin Jennings

There are certain things that everyone knows are expensive. Whether it is the extremely rare element gold that has a myriad of uses ranging from medicine to electronics, as well as being ornamentally beautiful, or the much less rare diamonds that can be manufactured artificially and are mainly expensive just because De Beers decided they should be, there are things that we all just expect to carry a hefty price tag. However, there are other materials that are even more expensive that you may never have heard of or considered just how expensive they might be.

Tritium

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            Have you ever walked out of a movie theater, hotel, or school, looked up at the cheap looking plastic or aluminum exit sign, and thought to yourself “that probably cost upwards of $1,000”? Of course not. While some of these signs may use LEDs to light up, the disadvantage of such a design is that it requires a source of power in order to work. While those LED signs are much cheaper, if the power goes out so too does the sign, rendering them largely pointless. Even if they have backup batteries, there’s no knowing for sure how long they will last in the event of a power outage or how often they need to be replaced. Enter the radioactive isotope tritium.

              Tritium is the third isotope of hydrogen, and it produces very low levels of radiation. The radiation from tritium is not harmful to humans, but it’s just radioactive enough to luminesce. This makes it useful for things such as self illuminating exit signs or watch faces. It can also be used as a tracer for biomedical research. So why would a cheap looking exist sign cost so much? While the average sign only contains approximately 0.03 grams of tritium, the average cost of tritium is roughly $30,000 per gram.

Though this radioactive isotope technically is naturally occurring, it exists as stray atoms, not something that can easily be harvested for commercial use. In order to produce quantities of tritium that are actually useful, it takes a nuclear reaction. The tritium we use is sourced from waste water from nuclear power plants, and with this being the most practical source of the material, it is certainly going to be an expensive process.

There’s also the cost of properly storing and maintaining the supply. The radiation emitted from Tritium is not dangerous to be near, but if ingested or inhaled it becomes a different story. It’s still unlikely to be lethal, but it can cause severe illness so extra care needs to be taken when handling a potentially dangerous substance. And extra care means extra cost.

Finally, there’s the matter of shelf life. Even if production of tritium were to greatly outpace demand, its half-life is only about 12 years. That may seem like a lifetime compared to the planned obsolescence of many modern technological devices, but it’s extremely short for an integral part of a building. Excess Tritium can’t be indefinitely stored, and unused supplies can’t be recycled or repurposed the same way other excess inventory can be gutted for parts. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and with the aggravation of already needing to replace any self-illuminating tritium signs every decade or so, customers are only going to want the freshest materials to ensure they last as long as possible.

Plutonium

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              It’s no surprise that Doc Brown resorted to stealing plutonium from Libyan terrorists in Back to the Future, as this stuff is not easy to come by. Plutonium is the element with the highest atomic number that occurs in nature, though only in trace amounts. The majority of plutonium is manmade, and price estimates range from as much as $4,000-$20,000 per gram. The plutonium that we use is created by bombarding uranium with deuterium, the second isotope of hydrogen. Unlike tritium that requires nuclear reactors to manufacture and carries a high price tag, deuterium is produced from seawater and costs about $1 per gram. With uranium being relatively affordable as well at about $33 per pound, it is the process itself and the expertise required to manufacture it that makes plutonium so expensive.         

Plutonium is used predominantly in nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, though it does have other uses as well. Because it requires minimal shielding to protect humans from the harmful radiation and has a half-life of over 87 years, it can be an excellent source of power. The twin Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977 were each fitted with a 500 watt plutonium power source. Now, 45 years later, the shuttles are still functioning off those plutonium batteries, though with diminished capacity. Scientists are hopeful they can keep at least some functionality of the crafts online until 2027 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch, though their utility is dwindling. Still, 45 years and over 14 billion miles traveled on a single battery is pretty damn good.

Plutonium has appeared in the medical field as well. To avoid the need for repeat surgeries, starting in 1969 patients could receive nuclear pacemakers, pacemakers fueled with a plutonium battery. Because the half-life of plutonium is nearly that of a human life, the pacemakers were designed to outlive the owners. As of 2007, there were only 9 plutonium powered pacemakers still in use, but they were all still going strong. While there was no risk to the host of radiation poisoning from the pacemakers, the nuclear versions were phased out in favour of lithium powered pacemakers as they were deemed good enough, and because manufacturers could buy 2 metric tons of lithium for the same price as one gram of plutonium.

While there was a practical application for plutonium in medicine, it was also the subject of a number of unethical experiments performed on patients without consent. These experiments were designed to track how radioactive material is deposited within the human body as well to monitor the effects. The only useful information gleaned from this despicable mad science project seems to be “injecting people with radioactive material is bad”, something that was already well known at the time. 

If you happen to have enough disposal income that the high price tag of plutonium is not a deterrent, unfortunately it is still not legal to purchase for hopefully pretty obvious reasons. You can, however, purchase depleted uranium off of Amazon. 

Taaffeite

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            At approximately a million times rarer than diamond, taffeite is so rare that the jewelers and gemologists who originally found it didn’t even realize it existed. The original taffeite gems that were found were believed to be spinel, a red gem that was often used to impersonate rubies in jewelry. Spinel is composed of magnesium and aluminum and is relatively rare and expensive on its own.

              Count Edward Charles Richard Taaffe was an Austrian gemologist who discovered taffeite in the most unusual of places: a jeweler’s shop. In October of 1945, he purchased a number of stones from a shop in Dublin, Ireland. Upon leaving the shop and inspecting the gems closer, he noticed some inconsistencies with what he thought was a spinel. Most noticeably, the stone was double refractive, whereas spinal is not. He sent it to a lab to be tested the next month and the results were inconclusive. Further tests in 1951 showed that it was not spinel, but rather a new, previously unidentified stone containing magnesium, aluminum, and beryllium, making it the first mineral to contain both aluminum and beryllium.

              Once it was discovered that this gemstone was an entirely new species, it was named after its discoverer, and it is the only species to ever be first identified from a cut and polished gem. So few stones are currently known to exist that they could all fit in a single cup, though more are being mined. There likely also are already more unidentified taeffeite stones in circulation having been miscategorized as spinels. Taffeite has been found in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. Not only is the gemstone extremely rare, but it is normally found alongside the also rare spinel, making them difficult to differentiate at a glance. As with all gemstones, the price varies greatly depending on the quality of the stone, but taafeite has seen prices up to $35,000 per gram, and it’s going up.

              As with all gemstones there are options available at many different price points, but the finer samples are being rapidly purchased. Taaffeite comes in a range of colours, with the brighter and more saturated stones being the most desirable. Because taaffeite is so rare and easily mistaken for spinel, as well as only having originally been identified in 1951, its existence isn’t as widely known as other precious gems like rubies and sapphires. Rare gemstones are seeing a resurgence in popularity as investors look for new ways to outpace inflation, having already missed the boat on the exceptional increases seen by the likes of gold or Bitcoin. As more people learn about taaffeite, the more potential it has to increase in value, and the harder they will be to actually find for sale. Just remember that this is all for educational and entertainment purposes only, so please do not treat this information as financial advice.

Zolgensma

            Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is a rare genetic disorder. It results in difficulty walking, swallowing, and breathing. When left untreated, SMA is the most common genetic cause of death among infants. For those with the most severe type, SMA-1, the mortality rate is 95% by only 18 months old. SMA-2 doesn’t boast as an impressive a mortality rate, but it is still extremely deadly with most deaths resulting from respiratory problems. Any parent will tell you that you can’t put a price on a child’s life, but Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis disagrees. That price is just over $2.1 million per dose of Zolgensma.

              The good news is that one dose is all it takes. Zolgensma is not a treatment for SMA, it is a cure. The bad news is that because the alternative to treatment is near certain death, Novartis really has people over a barrel on this one. Zolgensma is an intravenous gene therapy medication that replaces the damaged genes that would could SMA, and admittedly it is nothing short of modern miracle that such a thing is even possible. Parents don’t need to wait for the disease to begin to manifest itself, either. Genetic testing can be done to see if a child will develop SMA, and treatment can be provided before the child starts to suffer from the disease. That’s not to say that the medication is not without its side effects, but when the side effect of not taking the medication is death, some vomiting and temporarily reduced platelet counts don’t seem that bad by comparison.

              With its $2.1 million price tag, Zolgensma is the most expensive drug in the world. The dose varies depending on the size of the child to whom it is administered so unfortunately there is no exact per gram price to compare it with the other materials on this list. Depending on the weight of the child, the dose could cost anywhere from $20,000 per gram to nearly $130,000 per gram. It will certainly be on the higher end of that scale as Zolgensma is only administered to children under two years old, and the $20,000 per gram price is for a child weighing 55 lbs (25 kg), which is over double the average size of a two year old.

The American health care system may leave a lot to be desired, but there is hope if you live outside of the US! In December of 2019, Novartis announced it would donate 100 doses of Zolgensma per year to children outside the US in a global lottery, a decision that European healthcare regulators and patient groups referred to as emotionally burdening and ethically questionable. If gambling with your child’s life isn’t for you, you can always move before having children. Japan, Israel, and Qatar have all covered the cost of treatment through their public health care system.

Antimatter

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              It may sound like pure science fiction, but antimatter is a very real thing, at least temporarily. Matter is made up of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. Antimatter is essentially the same thing, but the charge and spin of the particles are reversed, so antimatter consists of antiprotons and positrons. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but that’s the short explanation. Antimatter is created in nature in very small amounts. Anything from cosmic rays to the potassium in bananas can occasionally result in antimatter, with a banana spitting out one positron every 75 minutes. Since the human body also contains potassium, you are also occasionally creating antimatter.

              The reason antimatter is so expensive is because of what happens when it comes into contact with matter: it explodes. The matter and antimatter effectively cancel each other out, creating energy instead. The energy created from a single atom isn’t going to result in any noticeable effect, which is why the produce department at your local grocery store doesn’t erupt into a conflagration of hellfire every 75 minutes, though a single gram of antimatter could create an explosion the size of a nuclear bomb. The cost of one gram of antimatter? Approximately $100 trillion and 25 quadrillion kilowatt hours of energy.

              There are a lot of potential applications of antimatter, including futuristic rocket propulsion systems. The problem is that there is no easy way to produce or store antimatter. There are only a few labs creating antimatter, and they haven’t made much. Since 2002, CERN has only created one billionth of a gram of antimatter, which can be stored and studied using a combination of vacuums, magnets, and microwaves.

              If that sounds either too science fiction or too technologically extravagant, how about a cure for cancer? Antimatter is already used in medicine as a form of generating high-resolution images of the body, but it is being experimented with in fighting cancer as well. Targeting tumors with beams of particles has already been employed as a form of treatment, but research is taking place to supplement that beam of particles with antimatter particles. This technique has already been used with hamsters and found to be effective, but no studies have taken place using human cells yet. Given how expensive antimatter is to manufacture, perhaps we should all start eating a lot more bananas, just to be safe.

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