When I first saw the head-lines my jaw dropped. Russia is actually going to do it. They’re betting big on science and heading for the moon to mine it for helium-3, the one thing that would make the trip profitable. Even if the entire moon were made of gold, platinum, or even uranium, going there to harvest resources would be a losing proposition. Not so with helium-3. Not anymore.
“Fusion!!?”, you say? Yes, fusion. Unlike the myriad of failed or unduplicable experiments of the past, there have been some recent experimental successes. I’m talking about experiments in which the energy spent to start a reaction was actually recouped. The only catch is, that they require helium-3. Previously, most fusion experiments involved fusing deuterium with tritium to make Helium. The problem is that reaction emits excess neutrons, which become more and more damaging as the size of the reactor is increased. Fusion between helium-3 and deuterium on the other hand, yields hydrogen and helium, neither of which is radioactive. The 18.4 MeV created from D+He3 fusion also exceeds the 17.6 MeV created by D+T fusion. Another very important consideration is that He3 is stable, and thus easy to store and easy to transport. The advantages of a D+He3 fusion reactor over Tokamak reactors, such as the one being built in Héféi ( 肥), are clear.
Sources of Helium-3
Finding helium-3 is a problem. On the entire planet there is only a small amount of helium-3. The majority of it is created as by products from the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The US currently holds about 29 kilograms in strategic reserves and could possibly create 15 kilograms per year. Gerald Kulcinski, of Wisconsin University, estimated that the moon holds a total of 1,100,000 metric tons of He3, which have been deposited by the solar winds. He said that “Helium 3 fusion energy may be the key to future space exploration and settlement,” and added, “It could be the cash crop for the Moon.” Based on current oil prices ($66/barrel), He3 has an energy value of 9.4 million US dollars per kilogram. A space vehicle with a payload bay the size of a space shuttle could bring back enough helium-3 to generate the electricity to satisfy the world’s needs for a full 3 months, turning multi-billion dollar profits each trip. Needless to say, this is one heck of a gamble. However, if Russia does go through with it, things will get interesting for sure.
He3 Fusion Summary from the University of Madison:
UW-Madison Fusion Technology Institute