What is Helium-3 rich lunar dust and how it can be used to generate energy

If you are an avid space enthusiast, you may have heard about the mining the moon mission and how the project was feverishly taken up by space giants NASA and China. Not just NASA, but there are a host of private players who have jumped onto this mission, which has the potential to solve global energy crisis. Florida-based private commercial space company Moon Express, one of the companies partnering with NASA on their lunar project — NASA lunar initiative known as Catalyst is now reportedly one step closer to its mission of mining the celestial body for Helium-3 gas, platinum-group metals, rare earth metals, helium-3 and moon rocks. Not just Moon Express, Jeff Bezos owned Blue Origin is also ready to support NASA’s lunar missions with a proposed “Blue Moon” lunar lander system.

Is helium 3 the answer to global crisis?

The renewed interest is in part due to the most valuable resource – Helium 3 gas that could serve as a potential fuel supply and is rarely available on earth. According to writer and futurist Christopher Barnatt, Helium-3 is produced as a by-product of the maintenance of nuclear weapons, which could net a supply of around 15 kg a year. It is also emitted by the sun but the earth’s atmosphere prevents it from reaching the surface. Estimates suggest that there is around 1,100,000 metric tonnes of helium-3 present on the surface of the Moon as the moon absorbs the gas. The valuable gas can be extracted by heating lunar dust to around 600 degrees C, before getting it back to Earth to power a new generation of nuclear fusion power plants, suggest Barnatt. He further added that Nuclear fusion reactors that use helium-3 could supply nuclear power without any waste or radiation.

Is it viable to mine helium 3?

Though the subject has been of great debate over the last two decades, what with Russia and China setting up programs to mine moon’s rich surface, there are several questions its economic viability and the proposed logistics. China has an aggressive plan of building a manned spacecraft and sending six astronauts to the moon and bring samples back to earth. According to Barnatt, Russia too floated a similar idea in 2006 to set up a permanent moon base and carry out industrial-scale helium-3 production to commence by 2020, but it came to a naught.

There is a growing body of concern around science and physics involved in mining and heating the lunar surface, notably the lunar rocks and ferrying the cargo back to earth. According to Barnatt, around one million tons of lunar soil would be needed to be mined and processed for every 70 tonnes of helium-3 yield).

Inside Jeff Bezos’s Amazon-type cargo delivery to the moon

According to news reports, Bezos owned Blue Origin is keen on developing an Amazon type delivery to the moon that would ferry gear for experiments, cargo and habitats by mid-2020, helping to drive the “future human settlement” on the moon.  Bezos believes it is time for America to return to the moon. The United States’ Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to land on the Moon in July 1969. In a white paper, addressed to NASA, Bezos proposed developing a developing a lunar spacecraft with a lander that would touch down near a crater at the moon’s south pole, and allows proximity to water and continuous sunlight for solar energy. Bezos backed company’s proposal has hinted at flying cargo missions to the moon, helping deliver space equipment needed in setting up the colony. During the Apollo mission, astronauts left footprints and flags.

Moon is a reserve of precious resources

It’s not just Helium-3, moon houses vast riches, minerals such as gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum and Rare Earth Metals, commonly known as REM that makes it attractive for mining.  Why REMs are in such high demand in the global economy is because of their application in electronic devices. Meanwhile, reports suggest that 90% of current reserves of REMs are controlled by China; so having a steady access to another source has becoming significant. Likewise, the moon has vast amounts of water within its lunar regolith and in the permanently shadowed areas in its north and southern Polar Regions. In 2010, the Mini-RF instrument on board Chandrayaan-1 discovered more than 40 permanently darkened craters near the moon’s north pole that are hypothesized to contain as much as 600 million metric tonnes (661.387 million US tons) of water-ice. This water could serve as a valued source of rocket fuel and could be used for drinking water for astronauts.


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Richa Bhatia
Richa Bhatia is a seasoned journalist with six-years experience in reportage and news coverage and has had stints at Times of India and The Indian Express. She is an avid reader, mum to a feisty two-year-old and loves writing about the next-gen technology that is shaping our world.

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