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Helium 3 as a Potential Energy Source, Part One Updated 18 June 2016

Updated on December 19, 2017
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Helium-3, You'll Find It on the Moon

Source

Author's Note to this Article 18 June 2016

In a 5 June 2016 article, The Wall Street Journal reported that MoonEx, or Moon Express, will launch its first experimental rocket to the moon in late 2017. "The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory hurdle to plans by Moon Express, a relatively obscure space startup, to land a roughly 20-pound package of scientific hardware on the Moon sometime next year." WSJ 5 June 2016 (subscription required).

The purpose of the lunar mission planned by Moon Express is stated in a CNBC report on 1 October 2015. "Among the moon's mineral riches: gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and Helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste."

The plan to mine the moon for Helium3 is still in place and is still moving forward.

The Importance of Helium 3

The earth is at a point of needing either more oil to fuel its endeavors or a new energy source altogether. Most people on our planet would like to continue to advance technologically and economically, but we are at a breaking point. Continuing to use oil, along with coal and natural gas as our primary energy sources has become unacceptable for many people worldwide. A new primary source of energy is being demanded. Could helium3 be the next major breakthrough in energy resources?

Helium 3 isotope has one neutron and two protons in its nucleus. The outer ring, or valence,  contains two electrons
Helium 3 isotope has one neutron and two protons in its nucleus. The outer ring, or valence, contains two electrons
Helium 4 isotope has two neutrons and two protons in its nucleus.   The outer ring, or valence, contains two electrons.
Helium 4 isotope has two neutrons and two protons in its nucleus. The outer ring, or valence, contains two electrons.

Helium is an Important Element: Helium3 and Helium4

Here is a helpful link describing helium-3 and helium-4. It is a short description.

The kind of helium that is found on earth and which I wrote about in my previous article, The Helium Shortage, is helium4. Helium3 is a different helium isotope and is rare on planet earth. This gas is continuously being produced by hydrogen fusion in the core of the sun. helium3 is then emitted from the sun into space. Eventually some of that gas arrives at earth and is blocked by our atmosphere. The moon, absent an atmosphere, has been absorbing helium3 for billions of years. At this point, no one knows for sure how much helium is on the moon. Before discussing the possibilities of mining the moon for helium3, Lets look at the benefits of having an abundant supply of helium3 for energy production on earth.

Do we really need a new source of energy on earth?

Currently the world uses more than 3,654,000,000 gallons of oil per day (2010). Quite often there is pollution involved obtaining oil, and it always pollutes as we use it.

According to The Society of Petroleum Engineers, based on current knowledge of oil reserves and usage, the world has enough oil to last for 41.6 years. This figure would be adjusted if usage changed or new reserves were discovered.

Today, nuclear energy is produced by fission, or splitting a uranium atom. Whenever this is done, there is a by-product of radioactive waste that must be stored indefinitely. The danger of a nuclear leak or explosion is always present.

Another kind of nuclear reaction is fusion which is the forcing together of the nuclei of two atoms. This can be done with the elements tritium and deuterium. The byproducts of this fusion are energy, helium and a fast neutron which is a containment risk.

Fusion of two helium3 atoms yields one helium4 atom, two protons and energy
Fusion of two helium3 atoms yields one helium4 atom, two protons and energy | Source

Could Helium3 Be the Solution?

Another element that can be used in producing energy by nuclear fusion is helium 3. The byproducts of helium3 fusion are helium, a proton and energy. "In contrast, helium-3 is a completely clean source of energy. Two helium-3 atoms are fused in a thermonuclear reactor to produce normal helium and energy. The fuel is non-radioactive, the process produces no radioactivity, and the residue produces no radioactivity. It is the perfect energy source." By Wilson Greatbatch, FAAAS, PE in A presentation given to Congressman Bill Paxon. (Do read the article by Dr. Greatbatch).

The following excerpt is from the i09 Blog (wiki about i09)-"The Helium-3 fusion process is not simply theoretical — the University of Wisconsin-Madison Fusion Technology Institute successfully performed fusion experiments combining two molecules of Helium-3. Estimates place the efficiency of Helium-3 fusion reactions at seventy percent, out-pacing coal and natural gas electricity generation by twenty percent." For the complete article go to i09

Artists rendition
Artists rendition | Source

When and Where Do We Start Digging?

So, lets start mining helium3, right? Helium3 is needed for nuclear fusion and it is rare on earth. There is lot of helium in space, though. The general consensus is that there is a great deal of helium3 on the moon’s surface. If that is true, then it naturally raises the question, should we mine the moon for helium3?

Actually, plans have already been made by a few nations. Russia, the United States and China have made clear their plans to go to the moon with the intention of mining helium3.

Christopher Barnatt-Mining the Moon

Nation/company
Target year
Purpose
Russia
2015
Helium production by 2020
USA
2024
Permanent Base/Helium Production
China
2017
Man on Moon to assess amount of helium present
India
Interest
 
Japan
Interest
 
Germany
interest
 
Moon Express
Late 2014
Exploration/Data Collection (Private US company)

Seriously?.......Yes, Seriously!

"By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American"  Newt Gingrich, summer 2012 Photograph: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
"By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American" Newt Gingrich, summer 2012 Photograph: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images | Source

Are They Serious?

“The Moon has never been explored before from an entrepreneurial perspective. I believe the Moon may be the greatest wealth creation opportunity in history. It’s not a question of if; just of who and when.” Dr. Barney Pell, Co-Founder, CTO and Vice Chairman of Moon Express

Newt Gingrich told Floridians in January, 2012 that that under his administration the US would have the first permanent base on the moon. An American moon base could provide America with enough Helium3 to provide for all of our country’s energy needs. I do believe that was one of the things that ended his campaign. No one took him seriously. But this is serious. Someone is going to the moon to mine Helium3.

Author's Note Added 2/1/14

As of late 2013, China has landed on the moon. One of their objectives is to collect data and do research regarding the mining of Helium 3. The race has begun, and China is out with an early lead. See my article on Mining Helium 3 on the Moon: China's Chang'e 3 Moon Mission.

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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      I actually read that someplace in my research. I thought it was funny at the time. Then I used it in reference to your comment. It made me think of that congressman who was worried that Guam would tip over if it got overpopulated. I agree, the moon will not fall out of the sky over this.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Randy, Undoubtedly the moon will be mined. I believe it will be soon. China, in my thinking, is probably the likeliest candidate. The U.S. Government has bowed out except for private enterprises. We may see some movement from them in the near future.

      I want to write something on the Moon Express and Google Lunar X Prize. That should be interesting info to pass on. Here is a link to a video by Moon Express.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_WKczVBrDE

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Well, we do gain quite a bit of mass each day from space dust, meteors, and who knows what else? So I don't think we are in danger of upsetting the mass of the planet yet.

      SSSSS

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      That's probably an even better point considering all the junk and mess we've made that surrounds Earth.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 

      5 years ago from Southern Georgia

      Quite interesting, Chris. And of course the moon will eventually be mined as we venture further into space. I never cease to be amazed at the new technology we come up with, even though sometimes I wonder if we aren't getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Rated up!

      SSSSS

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Thanks sparkster. I have been educating myself as I write these articles. I finally came up with some conclusive and interesting information that I put in the end of my last article "Helium-3 Moon Mines and the Media." I am still not sure how I feel about the whole concept. I get excited about the energy part, but have the same reservations that you and aviannovice seem to have about the moon itself. How about this? How much stuff can we carry off before orbits of earth and the moon are even slightly affected? That may be extreme, I don't know. Otherwise, we could just make a mess of the place before the rest of us get our chance at vacationing there. :)

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hey cam8510, I haven't read your other articles on this topic yet. As for China's "moon-base" images I have them posted on a couple of my own hubs including one called Awake & Aware 2012: Educating Humanity.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I am glad to hear that we are finally seriously looking at things other than oil. It's sure about time! And like sparkster said, it really does raise another question.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      sparkster, I am glad you read the article and thanks for passing this along. I just posted a third article on this topic. Do you have a source for that information?

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Someone's already got a mining operation going on there, China released images of it from their Chang'e 2 orbiter. I'm also wondering how long the moon will last if we do this?

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      billybuc, nice to see you today. Thanks for reading. I suppose I have felt for a long time that someday we would do something like this. I am reserving judgement because on one hand, this would be a gift from the gods. On the other hand we could destroy the moon before very many really got to see it up close. I'm going to post a question in a few minutes. I think it will be something like this. several nations and one private company are now racing to the moon to mine helium 3 for nuclear power on earth. Is there any chance they will take so much of the mass of the moon that our tides and orbit will be altered?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting Cam! I had not heard about it but it truly does not surprise me. Good job of explaining the situation. I'll reserve any further comment until I have thought about it some more.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 years ago from Flagstaff, AZ

      Asp52 Thank you for stopping in and reading the article. I don't know about the cost, but the value of helium3 is at least $3 billion/ton. The US needs 25 tons/year.

    • Asp52 profile image

      Andrew Stewart 

      5 years ago from England

      I have just read this hub with great interest, let me thank you for explaining the theory and mechanics behind this fuel source. It seems to me that it represents a great answer to our energy needs. I wonder what the real cost of producing the energy from Helium 3 is, and will it only become viable when other sources of power are exhausted. Thank you once again, voted up and enjoyable.

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