Efforts to harness Helium-3 take shape
What’s up there in the stars? Space exploration seems poised for a second golden age of exploration, thanks to the advancement of space programs in rising superpowers, but also in regular companies. However, taking this exploration at face value ignores the fact that overriding interests dictate these missions. In a recent example, the company Moon Express’ announcement of the first unmanned commercial spacecraft claims the inspection of the Moon’s surface for ressource as it’s prime objective. As our energetic crisis is exported into space, the Moon, with its priceless deposits of gaseous helium-3 (He-3), is within the sights of fearless prospectors. In this article, I hope to explain the reason behind the intensifying efforts to acquire helium-3.
Eighty years ago, before any of these corporate or national superpowers were making plans of an interplanetary nature, one man was paving the way for harnessing celestial energy. Circa 1938, Hans Bethe was hard at work on an obscure series of articles -later known as “Bethe’s Bible” – that first posited the guiding principles of celestial energy production. Building upon contemporary knowledge of Big Bang nucleosynthesis (i.e. the formation of rare isotopes, called primordial elements, in the wake of the Big Bang), he first posited the immense potential of helium-3 as a power source with huge, though unconfirmed, potential as fissile material.
Despite multiplying commercial efforts, space-exploration is an expensive business. The International Space Station cost $150 billion (€126.9 billion) and risks running out of funding soon. The price of a Moon-base of the size necessary for resource extraction would be enormous, with Google Lunar’s X Prize program offering $20 billion to a company capable of providing preliminary samplings. Why aren’t we staying home exactly? Moon Express’ president and co-founder explains succinctly that they “choose to go because it’s good business!”
In boardrooms and ministerial offices around the world, many have their fingers crossed for a new kind of discovery: “space gold”. Though the Earth doesn’t lack for reserves of “standard” helium-4, the isotope helium-3, sometimes called tralphium, is almost unheard of on Earth. Indeed, as a primordial nuclide it emanates in tiny quantities over millions of years from the planets and stars created by the Big Bang, but this part leaks into space. Current production is limited to small quantities released by decaying tritium (most of which is contained in the stores of nuclear weapons held by some nations) and commands around $3 billion a ton. In this instance, our protective atmosphere come at the price of more helium-3.
Large natural deposits of helium-3, like deposits of so many energies, derive from the Sun: the Moon, blessed with constant blasts of solar wind charged with helium-3, has trapped enormous quantities within the sands on its surface over the millennia. With a half-life lasting billions of years, the estimate 1.1 million metric ton reserves of helium-3 are thought to last humanity anywhere between 5000 to 10,000 years. Appropriately light for a Moon-based element, it could be harvested by heating the lunar dust on an industrial scale.
Helium-3, due to its composition (two protons, one neutron), has an attractive effect on surrounding neutrons. Already used in radiation detectors, these qualities could make it a revolutionary fission material in nuclear power installations. Indeed, much of the layers and precautions that characterise nuclear plants exit to diminish the risks created by radioactive neutronic rays emitted by the use of fissile elements like deuterium. According to communications from Helion Energy labs, the process for helium-3 fusion is so safe that the fusion chamber could be reduced to the size of an onboard engine. The same company is also working on a process by which a helium-3 powered fusion would emit further helium-3!
Of course, all of these installations remain purely theoretical at this point.
Generations of curiosity
Bethe’s pioneering understanding of nuclear fusion can be said to have fuelled both space exploration and the Cold War, and would fire the imagination of the best minds at NASA – and of a bevy of science-fiction authors.
At the time he wrote the articles, the ethnically Jewish Bethe – a Professor at Cornell University and later, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics, but originally of German Alsatian extraction – was already an exile from a home country that had been seduced by pseudo-scientific fables. But he could hardly have foreseen what was to come in a strange fit of life and art imitating one another. Men would latch onto his concept, first as a fictional conceit, then as the promise of a better future.
Today, the fascination with a society based on helium-3 collection continues in pop culture through landmarks like Duncan Jones’ existentialist Moon (2009), the grand-guignol of Timo Vuorensola’s Iron Sky (2012) and a mention in rock band Muse’s song “Explorers”. The excitement, however, is very real.
The space gold rush
China became the third ever nation to soft-land a craft on the Moon in 2013, and plans to send a new rover in 2018 to collect samples for analysis (much like Moon Express). In 2018, the country’s planned probing will extend to the unexplored dark side of the moon. India has also made access to helium-3 a priority, estimating that a successful extraction of helium-3 and associated fusion process would occur the next few decades. In partnership with French authorities, it is also supporting private sector prospecting by homegrown Axiom Labs.
Donald Trump has attracted media derision for paying a little too much attention to the Moon, but even in his famously anti-science cabinet, there seems to be some interest. By filing a Freedom of Information request (FOIA), American site Motherboard found out that Trump’s transition team had requested that NASA informs them of the feasibility of space mining and a space colony, possibly due to the influence of space entrepreneurs like Charles Miller within said team.
The world should keep an eye on countries fighting to hoard access to helium-3 for strategic gain. Indeed, for these countries, the development of an early and vigorous presence would mean making partners of all future private sector harvesters of helium-3 on the Moon. NASA suggested as much in its answer to the Trump administration:”NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity”. To some, that may stand out as the most otherworldly comment yet.
Grégoire SMELT is currently studying to be a lawyer at the University of Paris-Sud Jean Monnet and the University of Strasbourg, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Law and Sustainable Management of Energy.
Grégoire SMELT est étudiant-juriste d’origine franco-britannique et fait parti du Master 2 GEDD de l’Université de Strasbourg.