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US: UW scientists want to mine moon energy

MADISON — Two University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists believe moon rocks contain all the energy the United States needs for the next millennium.

The moon’s surface is full of the energy source helium-3, said Gerald Kulcinski, a nuclear engineering professor and director of the Fusion Technology Institute at UW.

“If we could land the space shuttle on the moon, fill the cargo with canisters of helium-3 mined from the surface and bring the shuttle back to Earth, that cargo would supply the entire electrical power needs of the United States for an entire year,” he said.

President Bush’s plan to create a permanent lunar base brings Kulcinski and others at the institute hope for their idea. Kulcinski said he does not know of any other institution that is working on helium-3 fusion.

John Santarius, a professor at the Fusion Technology Institute, said helium-3 provides one million times more energy per pound than a ton of coal.

Fusion of helium-3 does not produce greenhouse emissions, and mining it would do little environmental harm, Kulcinski said.

“The moon doesn’t have air or water. So, there won’t be any of that kind of pollution,” he said.

Helium-3 is found in the top few feet of lunar soil. To access it, miners would shovel up the surface, bake it and isolate the gas, Santarius said.

Since 1985, Kulcinski, Santarius and others at UW have thought about the possibility of harnessing the energy of helium-3 through fusion, which combines atoms to create energy. Fission, which is the process used in nuclear reactors, splits atoms.

“We came at it from an energy standpoint,” Kulcinski said. “We were looking for a long-term economical and safe form of energy.”

The researchers still are working on building a helium-3 reactor that would produce more energy than it takes in.

The team estimates the moon probably holds more than 1 million metric tons of helium-3 on its surface, more than enough energy to provide the nation with more than 1,000 years of electricity.

“This is going to be hot,” said George Miley, a professor of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But Robert Bless, a retired UW astronomy professor, believes the nation should invest in fuel technologies on Earth.

“We should be getting the people in Detroit to start designing vehicles that use less gas,” he said. “We should be focusing our efforts here.”

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