Scientists believe that a gas known as helium-3 can produce abundant energy from nuclear fusion without simultaneously creating any radioactive waste. Yet helium-3 is rarely if ever mentioned in the same breath with the approved trinity of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power.
It is true that helium-3, a lightweight isotope of the gas that fills children’s birthday balloons, is rarely found on Earth. Our planet’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field block out rays coming from the sun that carry the element. But our nearest neighbor, the airless moon, turns out to be saturated with the stuff. In 1985, engineers from the University of Wisconsin discovered that lunar soil samples brought back to Earth by the Apollo missions contained unexpectedly high concentrations of it.
Today it is believed that up to 1.1 million metric tons of helium-3 reside at or near the lunar surface, which has been bombarded for billions of years by unfiltered solar winds. Just 40 tons of helium-3 — about enough to fill two railroad boxcars — could power the entire Earth at our present level of energy consumption for a year. Mining the gas could finally “free the United States — and the world — from dependence on fossil fuels,” wrote geologist (and former New Mexico senator) Harrison Schmitt, who piloted the Apollo 17 lander, in a 2004 issue of Popular Mechanics.
Mining the moon may be a formidable engineering challenge, just as the transatlantic cable, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, and the Apollo program were in their own day; but it is hardly science fiction. America already has a half-century of practical experience in spacecraft design and instrumentation, 15 years of experience with its astronauts living and working on the International Space Station, and the expertise that comes from successfully operating three unmanned rovers on Mars. Naveen Jain, whose Moon Express company is a finalist in the Google XPRISE competition to land a mobile lunar robot, has observed that we now have more computational power in our cell phones than was used to first send men into space.
Indeed, one country with far fewer accomplishments in space than the U.S. has already made the commercial importation of helium-3 a main goal of its rocket program. The Chinese version of NASA, which put its Chang’e-3 lander and companion Jade Rabbit rover on the moon in 2013, is committed to retrieving lunar soil samples by 2017, with the ultimate goal of establishing a helium-3 mining colony.
With coal currently accounting for two-thirds of the energy consumed in the People’s Republic, the Asian giant sees helium-3 as a way to reduce its growing pollution problem while becoming a major resource player on Earth — as well as having a profitable base from which to explore the solar system. Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the China Lunar Exploration Program, estimates that using moon gas to power fusion reactors would solve the world’s energy problems “for around 10,000 years, at least.”
Meanwhile, nuclear power in general is enjoying growing support from scientists as a way to reduce carbon emissions. In April of 2014, the UN’s 200 member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formally threw its weight behind atomic energy, calling for a tripling of output. On October 6 of this year, Carol Browner, who served as EPA administrator during the Clinton administration, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal, admitting she “used to be against nuclear power but changed my stance after realizing that without it we will likely fall short of our carbon-pollution goals.”
Generating the world’s electricity with helium-3 would reduce carbon emissions without the negative side effects of other technologies. Unlike standard nuclear power, it wouldn’t create radioactive waste. And unlike other “green energy” alternatives, it wouldn’t create a permanent need for bureaucrats to regulate manufacturing techniques, determine the “Earth-friendly” makeup of consumer products, and otherwise micromanage how people should live and work in an energy-starved world. Helium-3 deserves far more attention than it’s been getting.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is the author of To Thine Own Self Be True: The Relationship between Spiritual Values and Emotional.
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