Geology Home Page physical geology historical geology planetary gems
Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Jason Weber
Helium-3, Super fuel
Helium-3 (He-3) could quite possibly be the world’s next super fuel. Offering Nuclear power with no radioactive waste or byproduct. And for those who don’t know, that’s is pretty amazing. Just how amazing? According to Artemis Project paper, about twenty-five tons or one Space Shuttle cargo bay’s full, could power the entire United States for up to one year. The only disheartening part to this discovery, is that Earth’s magnetic field has prevented He-3 deposits and contains merely .0000137 % of this Helium (He) isotope, which makes it very, very rare. Fortunately for us, our cosmic neighbor, the moon, has no protection from solar wind and holds quite an abundance of it. Furthermore, its economic value is as astronomical as it’s rare, with a mind blowing three billion US dollars per ton of He-3. Many governments have already set their focus on He-3, its vast nuclear potential, along with its development, mining in particular.
What is helium-3(H e-3)?
With anything less than a degree in Nuclear Physics, understanding the parent isotopes and properties of He-3 can be very complex. In a nutshell, Helium-3 is a gas ejected from the Sun via solar flares. It can also be found in the maintenance and storage of nuclear weapons. It’s a very lightweight, Non-radioactive isotope of the basic element Helium (He), number two on the Periodic Table of Elements. It is derived from the decay of the element Tritium (T or Hydrogen-3) which is widely produced by cosmic rays.
Tritium atoms are very unstable because of the two extra neutrons within its
nucleus. These extra neutrons give the Tritium (T or Hydrogen-3) atom an excess
amount of energy, thus causing the atom to undergo something called, “…Nuclear
transformation or radioactive decay.” During this decay tritium exerts two
radioactive particles. A beta particle, similar to an electron and an
anti-neutrino which does not interact with matter. Left in the wake of the decay
process, a much more stable atom, He-3 is born.
The abundance of known He-3 is said to be located within lunar soils. Found
just below the surface, in a layer called “Regolith”. Regolith, by definition
“the layer of unconsolidated rocky material covering bedrock”. Deposited over
billions of years by our Sun’s solar winds, the lunar surface is said hold an
estimated 1,100,000 metric tons of He-3.
How can it be mined? One theory is that the lunar dust can be heated to 600
degrees Celsius to extract the isotope, before transporting it back to earth.
With the numbers factoring out to around one million tons of lunar soil to yield
about seventy tonnes He-3, it will surely be a massive endeavor. Although,
China’s recent accomplishment in December of 2013, with the landing of a robot
on the lunar surface. Successfully completing stage 3 of its “Lunar Exploration
Progammme”, has led to a projected mission for the mining of Helium-3 in the
2030s. Also in past years, 2006 Nikolai Sevastyanov, the head of the Russian
Space Corporation, Energia proclaimed Russia would have a permanent base on the
lunar surface, with industrial production of Helium-3 by 2015. As we can clearly
see, Sevastyanov was very ambitious in his claims, but has not quite gotten
there. The U.S. however, is planning to have “a permanent base on the lunar
poles by 2024” with the mining of Helium-3, as one of its agendas.
In conclusion, whoever the pioneer of the futures next source of power
may be, we know with great degree of certainty that the world is coming upon
Helium-3, Power Generation by Christopher Barnett