The Race to Mine the Moon's Helium

While much attention has been focused of late on the scramble by several countries to claim the Arctic floor and its rich supply of natural resources, a broader, more consequential race for resources may be looming on the horizon. Many of the world's leading powers, including the U.S., Russia, China and India, are setting their sights on the moon — specifically on its vast supply of helium-3, a substance rarely found on Earth that some believe could hold the key to fusion reaction.

NASA's Vision for Space Exploration is making plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2020 and on erecting a permanent base there by 2024 while Russia has set the more ambitious goal of building its first base by 2015 - 2020 — for the explicit purpose of extracting helium-3. China, for its part, will be orbiting a satellite around the moon in the coming months and hopes to land an unmanned vehicle in 2011; India, not to be left out, will send out a probe, named Chandrayaan-1, next year and a surface rover in 2010 or 2011. This then raises the important question: how viable really is fusion power as a long-term solution to our energy needs? According to experts' best estimates, practical nuclear fusion is still almost 5 decades away and its commercial application, at best, is several more. Supporters of the technology argue that current efforts to develop fusion plants are impractical since they rely on the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle — a dangerous reaction that results in the release of high-energy neutrons. These could potentially destroy the reactor's containment vessel and unleash a large amount of radioactive waste. Helium-3 advocates claim that the element is non-radioactive and that it would thus eliminate most of these problems.

Critics of this approach counter that He3-based fusion is highly unwieldy and impractical on a large scale. Frank Close, a theoretical physicist at Oxford University and helium-3 skeptic, recently published an article lashing out against the "fantastical" claims made by "helium aficionados."

One of the only (modestly) successful applications of the He3-based technology so far has been a small plant built by Gerald Kulcinski of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Running on a six-figure annual budget, it only contains a spherical plasma about 10 cm in diameter that can produce sustained fusion with 200 million reactions per second — and requires 1 kilowatt of power to make 1 milliwatt.

While it may sound unimpressive, Kulcinski's reactor, which uses a technology known as inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC), has shown at the very least that fusion is feasible though not yet practical. "He3-He3 is not an easy reaction to promote," Kulcinski said. "But He3-He3 fusion has the greatest potential." That's due in part to the fact that helium-3, unlike tritium, is non-radioactive and that the protons it produces have charges that can be successfully contained using magnetic and electric fields — making direct electricity generation possible.

Still, He3-based fusion is very unlikely to provide a solution to our energy needs and, at best, will take many decades before it becomes a sufficiently viable technology to be mass-produced. Best to stick with our currents efforts to develop new renewable sources of energy and minimize fossil fuel consumption.

Via ::Technology Review: Mining the Moon (news website)

See also: ::Up, Up, And Away With My Beautiful Green Balloons, ::Fusion vs Breeder Reactor, ::Fly Me to the Moon--I Need Unlimited Natural Resources
Image courtesy of Kevin via flickr