Electricity, By Way Of The Moon

The population clock is ticking away. By 2050, the number of people, who’ll call Earth home, is projected to reach 9.6 billion. Together, they’ll use some 20 terawatts of electricity. More folks, more consumption. More consumption, more depletion.

We can’t run on fossil fuels forever. Oil will dry out by 2049. Our coal deposits will be gone by 2054.

To keep the mammoth economic machinery from coming to a grinding halt, silent but substantial, research is being done in the area of exploring a new source of energy to power the future.

Nuclear fusion is believed to be a way forward. It’s the process by which two varieties of hydrogen—deuterium (which has one proton and one neutron) and tritium (which has one proton and two neutrons)—bond to make a helium nucleus (which has two protons and two neutrons), a neutron, and energy.

In a conventional fusion reaction, a deuterium nucleus and a tritium nucleus fuse together to form a helium nucleus, a neutron, and energy.
In a conventional fusion reaction, a deuterium nucleus and a tritium nucleus fuse together to form a helium nucleus, a neutron, and energy.

But its biggest drawback is that it releases the overwhelming bulk of that energy in the form high-energy neutrons, which are highly destructive to anything they come into contact with, including the chamber they’re produced in.

Switching to helium-3 (which has two protons and one neutron) is a safer approach. An atomic marriage involving this fuel would entail either fusing deuterium with helium-3 (which creates helium and one proton) or helium-3 with itself (which creates helium and two protons).

The reaction of two helium-3 nuclei yields one helium-4 nucleus, two protons, plus energy.
The reaction of two helium-3 nuclei yields one helium-4 nucleus, two protons, plus energy.

Either of these would produce clean energy, without long-lived, radioactive nuclear waste. And therein is the appeal. It’s nearly flawless, but helium-3 is very rare on our planet. A team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute have calculated the deposits to be a little over 350 pounds.

But the Moon has plenty of it. The lunar dust is a vast ore of helium-3, possessing about 1,100,000 tonnes of the inert gas, baked into its soil, down to a depth of a few meters. As the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere to shield itself from the solar wind, which emits, among other things, helium-3, it has, over eons, absorbed it.

In theory, it could be extracted by heating the regolith to around 1,110 degrees Fahrenheit, before bringing it back to Earth.

The same research group has figured out that if the entire surface of the Moon was mined and all of its helium-3 employed in our reactors, it could meet the world energy demand for over 10,000 years. Also, considering that a ton of helium-3 would yield the equivalent of about 50 million barrels of crude oil, it’d ignite our productivity by leaps and bounds.

But for that, we must first return to the Moon.

The British science-fiction film, “Moon” (2009), is based on this very theme. Lunar Industries, a private firm, has acquired the know-how to procure helium-3 from the Moon and set up a base there to send shipments of the precious gas.

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