Helium 3 - Tomorrow's Energy Source within Our Grasp
written by: S.L. Bradish•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 8/28/2009
Is there a perfect fuel within our grasp? One University of Wisconsin prof. thinks so. And he's already making it!
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Discovery of a Clean and Safe Fuel
Suppose there was a new fuel source that was clean, safe and could provide all the power needed for the USA for a whole year if you just had 40 metric tons of it? That’s right just 40 metric tons. There is such a new fuel out there. Way out there. It’s called Helium 3 and it is found in abundance (approx. 1 million tons of it) on the moon.
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What is Helium 3?
It is basically a gas that comes from the sun released into the solar winds by the sun's fusion reaction. The atmosphere on Earth tends to shield us from it, while it covers the moon surface down to a meter deep in places. It doesn’t “burrow" under the soil to get that deep beneath the lunar surface but the meteorite strikes that the moon receives every now and then “stir" the surface dust and mix it. This has been happening for billions of years so the Helium 3 content of the lunar surface is very rich and concentrated.
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Mining for Helium 3 on the Moon
How could we hope to get the Helium 3 down from the moon and put it to use? What would it take to make it useable as fuel? The simple answers to those important questions are mining and refining it, and bringing it back to Earth to use.
How would it be mined? Helium 3 and other gasses are released when heated to 700 degrees C. As it cools, all the other gasses condense out, leaving only Helium 3. After separating the Helium 3 from Helium 4 (the method is well known by scientists), it can be bottled and then flown back to Earth. A lunar lander is already being designed by engineers at the University of Wisconsin that could do the job. The lander is designed to travel around the lunar surface, collect and refine the Helium 3.
Professor Gerald Kulcinski is the Associate Dean for Research, the Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering, and the Director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin. He has recently been selected by NASA to be a member of their Advisory Council. Prof. Kulcinski is very interested in Helium 3 and has been working on its refinement and uses for more than twenty years.
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The main problems with getting to the moon, collecting the Helium 3 and bringing it back are that we now have a lack of engineering students interested in the project. Prof. Kulcinski is working to remedy that problem through his University of Wisconsin programs and with NASA to inspire more interest in the general public. The other difficulty is the innate distrust of government entities. NASA and DOE (Dept. of Energy) don’t have much faith in one another and can’t seem to get working together even on such an important project and perfect fuel source.
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How Could it Be Used as Fuel?
What would we do with it, once we got the bottles of Helium 3 back to Earth? Right now, there is only one Helium 3 fusion reactor in the world. It’s located at Prof. Kulcinski’s lab. Instead of using an electromagnetic field to contain the plasma, his reactor uses an electrostatic field. His small reactor can produce 200 million reactions per second. It uses 1 kilowatt of power to produce 1 milliwatt. In spite of the imbalance, this is nuclear power minus the dangerous radioactive waste.
What the professor and his graduate students have accomplished on a small scale with a small budget, could be developed to correct the imbalance between energy in and energy out and enlarged to provide all the energy we need. With cooperation and commitment, we could have an international project to design and deploy the mining and retrieval systems necessary to make Helium 3 our newest and best world-wide energy source.