Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Helium 3 Mining and Fusion Power
I was fascinated by a documentary I watched last night called "Selling the Moon". The show centered around the human thirst for energy resources and the new technology that will help us get there.
Nuclear scientists have long known that fusion power is a possible way to generate large amounts of electricity using relatively small amounts of source material. Rather than using large amounts of coal in a standard power plant or using fission power in a nuclear reactor, this method of fusing, rather than splitting elements seems to be the way of the future, if the technology is ready and the materials are available.
However, the only setback is this...
Helium 3 is the material needed to create this wonderful fusion reaction, and it's a tad scarce on the ground. Literally.
In fact, the only large deposits we can find are on the moon. So, logically, rocket companies and scientists alike are jostling for the rights to mine the moon. Makes sense, doesn't it?
Except the cost of getting to the moon is somewhere in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In fact, it costs 1 million dollars per minute to keep a man on the moon. So a week of mining with say, 5 astronauts would cost, say 50400000000 dollars, if my calculations are correct.
Not to mention, a standard sized rocket ship can't really hold that much Helium 3 (possibly in moon rock, soil or dust form), because it would mess up the weight on re-entry. And since Helium 3 costs billions and billions per tonne (a human-made concept), it makes it one of the most valuable commodities. Ever. And a kilogram of this stuff can keep a large city going for about a week. So it is a given that many, many more trips will be needed to get enough to get us started.
It all seems just a little bit... mad.
These particular scientists / geologists and rocket companies have decided that the best way to solve our ever growing energy concerns is to mine the moon and create fusion power here on earth. The idea is to replicate the very process that the sun and the stars use to create energy.
There's a small gap in this logic.
We want to create a miniscule replica of the sun's energy producing process here on earth using a multi billion dollar rare-as-hens-teeth Helium 3 gas that is only found on the moon. So we're going to scoot up to the moon, mine the crap out of it, drag the stuff back here and start fusing it together using extreme heat to create energy so we can power our iPods.
Meanwhile, as we try to be insanely entrepreneurial and reinvent the wheel, the actual wheel is spinning up in the sky for all to see.
It's called the sun.
If we advance solar panel technology (using terrestrial materials!) we can further improve on what is a rather perfect solution. Since the sun is already generating massive amounts of energy using fusion power, wouldn't it make more sense to harness the ready-made power of the sun, enjoy our practically (barring any supernovas!) inexhaustible supply of clean, non-polluting energy...
...and leave the moon alone.