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Is The Answer To Earth’s Energy Problem On The Moon?


By James Donahue

March 2006


There is a story making the rounds on the web these days about the discovery by NASA astronauts during their Moon trips that there is a vast source of a rare energy source called helium-3 there.


As the story is told, researchers see this as the perfect fuel source because it has the potential of running power plants, it is extremely potent as an energy source, and it does not pollute. The problem is, helium-3 is extremely rare on Earth, but the astronauts discovered tons of it just lying around on the Moon.


Apparently helium-3 is produced naturally on the Moon’s surface because of its unique hostile environment, that is quite unlike that of Earth.


When the solar wind, or the rapid stream of charged particles emitted by the sun, strikes the moon, helium-3 is deposited in the powdery soil. Meteorite bombardment, due to the lack of protective atmosphere, occurs regularly, thus dispersing the particles throughout the top several feet of the lunar surface. Over billions of years, a lot of helium-3 has been manufactured.


So much of it that the astronauts brought it home on their boots after walking around in it.


Scientists estimate there may be at least a million tons of the stuff just lying on the moon. And that would be enough to power the world for thousands of years if we can devise an inexpensive way to mine it and transport it back to Earth.


News reports say Russia already has plans to colonize the moon and begin mining operations within the next decade. NASA, which is having problems just getting money enough to build a new delivery system to and from the space station, has its eyes set not only on another moon landing, but also a trip to Mars. China and Japan also have expressed interest in sending men to the moon.


It is obvious that a lot of people are thinking of helium-3 as a new cash crop waiting to be harvested.


How can we get energy from helium-3? Lawrence Taylor, a director of the US Planetary Geosciences Institute, said helium-3 is a variant of the same gas we use in lasers and refrigerators.


“When helium-2 combines with deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) the fusion reaction proceeds at a very high temperature and it can produce awesome amounts of energy,” Taylor said. “Just 25 tons of helium, which can be transported on a space shuttle, is enough to provide electricity for the United States for one full year.”


The task of mining and transporting the material to Earth is one obstacle. The other is developing the technology to use it once the material arrives.


So far, what is known about helium-3 has only been accomplished in laboratory tests. The reactor technology for converting helium-3 to energy is still in its infancy and could take up to 30 years to develop, some scientists say. Just to extract helium-3 gas the rocks have to be heated above 800 degrees Celsius.


And it is estimated that 200 million tons of lunar soil would be needed to produce a single ton of helium-3. Thus it might be more efficient to colonize the moon and extract the gas there before transporting it back to Earth.


All of this is obviously being thought out these days as the world’s energy crisis grows to critical proportions. It is estimated that the moon contains 10 times more energy in the form of helium-3 than all of the fossil fuels on Earth.





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