Skip to comments.Mining the moon for energy on Earth
Posted on 01/21/2004 1:51:15 PM PST by Darkshadow
Forget about drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison think all the energy we need for the next millennium can be found on the moon.
The energy source, helium-3, literally litters the moon's surface, said Gerald Kulcinski, professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Fusion Technology Institute at UW.
And with President Bush's call last week for the creation of a permanent lunar base, the possibility of using helium-3 as an energy source could become a reality.
"If we could land the space shuttle on the moon, fill the cargo with canisters of helium-3 mined from the surface and bring the shuttle back to Earth, that cargo would supply the entire electrical power needs of the United States for an entire year," he said.
However, since the space shuttle is expected to be phased out, it would not be the transport vehicle, he said.
According to John Santarius, a professor at UW's Fusion Technology Institute, helium-3 provides one million times more energy per pound than a ton of coal.
And fusion of helium-3 "doesn't produce greenhouse emissions. It's safe for the environment," Kulcinski said.
In addition, little environmental harm would come to the moon from the mining of helium-3, said Kulcinski and Santarius.
"The moon doesn't have air or water," Kulcinski said, "so, there won't be any of that kind of pollution."
In terms of surface harm, helium-3 is found in the top few feet of lunar soil. To access it, miners would only need to shovel up the surface, bake it, isolate the gas and "dump the sand back," Santarius said.
"We might smooth out some of the smaller divots" and bumps on the surface, Kulcinski said. But nothing that would be apparent from Earth.
Since 1985, Kulcinski, Santarius and others at UW have dreamt of the possibilities of harnessing the energy of helium-3 through fusion.
"We came at it from an energy standpoint," Kulcinski said. "We were looking for a long-term economical and safe form of energy."
Fusion combines atoms to create energy, unlike fission, which splits atoms to create energy - the process used in nuclear reactors.
Hypothetically, fusion looked great. Even at the early stages of research, when they tested the combination of deuterium (a heavy form of hydrogen) with tritium (a radioactive substance), the results were pleasing.
Although it produced radioactivity, they discovered it was at lower and less long-lived amounts than that produced by fission.
With more research, they realized that if they replaced tritium with helium-3 - a light form of normal helium - and fused it with deuterium, even less radioactivity was produced.
Finally, "our third generation research showed that if helium-3 was combined with helium-3," there would be no radioactive fallout at all - just the production of normal helium and hydrogen, Kulcinski said.
But there were two things blocking the development of this technology, Kulcinski said. First, the researchers needed to build a reactor that would produce more energy than it took in - something they are still working on.
Second, they needed to find an ample source of helium-3.
On Earth, it's pretty hard to come by. It can be derived from thermonuclear weapons, Kulcinski said, as well as from the decay of tritium - a result of changing one of the neutrons into a proton.
But if they were interested in helium-3 as an energy source, they'd need to find more.
So in 1985, Kulcinski and his team held a brainstorming session - where could they get more helium-3?
The sun, they knew, had a lot of it. And solar winds, they suspected, might spread it around the galaxy.
But on planets with magnetic fields or atmospheres - such as Earth - the gas would likely be deflected.
That's when the light bulb clicked. The moon, they reasoned, should have helium-3.
"The moon doesn't have a magnetic field or an atmosphere," Kulcinski said. "And it's convenient - it's pretty close by."
To test their hypothesis, they persuaded officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to examine lunar rock samples collected during the Apollo missions.
Lo and behold, the rocks contained helium-3.
The team estimated that the moon probably held more than 1 million metric tons of the substance on its surface - more than enough energy to provide the U.S. with more than 1,000 years of electricity.
Now they had to figure out how to get to the moon and mine it. Since then, they've determined how to mine it - a fairly simple process, Kulcinski said.
Helium-3 is found in the regolith - surface soil - of the moon. To isolate the energy source, the sand needs to be heated to about 700 degrees.
"It's like baking," Kulcinski said. At these temperatures, helium-3 gas escapes from sand and rocks - as do other elements, such as hydrogen and oxygen, a potential source for water on the moon.
Solar energy could be used for the baking, and the gases could be isolated and captured.
But getting to the moon remained a problem, at least until Bush announced his space initiative.
"This brings us hope," said Kulcinski, who said that UW is the only place he knows of that is working on helium-3 fusion.
"This is going to be hot," said George Miley, a professor of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The problem, he said, is at the moment, no one has built a fusion reactor that emits more energy than it consumes.
But now that there's a possibility of lunar settlement, Miley thinks the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration might be more willing to invest more into the helium-3 project.
"The problem has always been that NASA wanted to help, but without an efficient reactor, they weren't going to invest too much," Kulcinski said, "and the DOE was interested, but without having access to the moon, there wasn't much they could do."
Energy Department and NASA officials weren't available for comment.
There are some, however, who believe this research is more glamour than substance.
Robert Bless, retired UW professor of astronomy, believes that the U.S. should be investing in fuel technologies on Earth.
"We should be getting the people in Detroit to start designing vehicles that use less gas," he said. "We should be focusing our efforts here," not on the moon, he said.
But the fusion team is hoping Bush's announcement will "reinvigorate this research and prompt the DOE" to invest more in their research, Santarius said.
And with calls from companies such as Lockheed coming, they may have some fuel driving those hopes.
That'll happen. Probably a commercial fusion reactor will be on line first. These moon power declarations are forward-looking statements that depend on several things that haven't happened yet.
So, let's spend a lot of money to go to the moon and take a cooker with us to bake something out of the rocks that we aren't sure is there and then spend more money to process it and bring it back where we don't have any way to turn it into useful energy!
What a stretch!
Well, at least it would keep these guys at Wisconsin off the streets so they would be less of a danger to society.
Unless it is baked first I think it makes you sound like your mouth is full of rocks..........
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