Helium-3: Mining the Moon for a New Alternative Energy Source
If you saw Duncan Jones' 2009 movie "Moon" starring Sam Rockwell, you've heard of helium-3 (He3). In this drama / science fiction film, a company called Lunar Industries saves the Earth (at least, according to its TV ads) by producing 70% of the planet's energy using helium-3 harvested from the Moon. While this intriguing story didn't actually take place, the prospect of mining the Moon for the lightweight element as an energy source is a very real concept.
What is Helium-3?
Helium-3 is lighter in weight than the helium used to inflate balloons. Available in abundance on the moon, helium-3 could be used as a clean source of energy here on Earth. We have miniscule amounts of helium-3 on this planet - just enough to use for research.
En route to Earth from the sun, where it's produced, the Earth's magnetic field prevents it from reaching the planet, diverting it instead to the Moon. The He3 that is found on Earth is derived from performing maintenance on nuclear weapons. However, what have been described as infinite amounts are contained in the decomposed rock fragments littering the Moon's surface, just waiting to be mined as an energy source on Earth.
Potential for Alternative Energy
While scientists debate the feasibility of using nuclear fusion to create energy from helium-3, the potential benefits of this application are amazing. Although hauling He3 from the Moon would be an extremely expensive undertaking, 100 tons could supply the U.S. with power for an entire year. It's estimated that at least a million tons are available on the Moon. Making fuel from He3 would produce no radioactivity, eliminating safety concerns about nuclear energy.
The History of Helium-3
Its possible existence was first acknowledged at Cambridge University in 1934 by Mark Oliphant. In 1969, astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission retrieved samples of the substance from the Moon, as did those on future missions. However, it wasn't until 1985 that University of Wisconsin engineers realized its abundance in lunar soil samples.
The "Race" for Helium-3
Just a few years ago, government agencies and private companies in the U.S., Russia, Japan, China, India, and Germany had all thrown their hats into the race to mine helium-3. Temporary and permanent bases were planned to study the possibility of future Moon colonization, and He3 was part of the equation. However, NASA announced a massive layoff in 2009, and it's unclear what impact the recession will have on space exploration in the United States and other countries.