A potential gas source found on the moon’s surface could hold the key to meeting future energy demands as the earth’s fossil fuels dry up in the coming decades, scientists say.
Mineral samples from the moon contain abundant quantities of helium-3, a variant of the gas used in lasers and refrigerators.
“When compared to the earth the moon has a tremendous amount of helium-3,” Lawrence Taylor, a director of the US Planetary Geosciences Institute, said. “When helium-3 combines with deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) the fusion reaction proceeds at a very high temperature and it can produce awesome amounts of energy. “Just 25 tonnes of helium, which can be transported on a space shuttle, is enough to provide electricity for the US for one full year.”
Helium-3 is deposited on the lunar surface by solar winds and would have to be extracted from moon soil and rocks.
To extract helium-3 gas the rocks have to be heated above 800 degrees Celsius.
Dr Taylor says 200 million tonnes of lunar soil would produce one tonne of helium.
Only 10 kilograms of helium-3 are available on earth.
Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam has told the International Conference on Exploration and Utilisation of the Moon that the barren planet held about 1 million tonnes of helium-3.
“The moon contains 10 times more energy in the form of helium-3 than all the fossil fuels on the earth,” Mr Kalam said.
However, Dr Taylor says that the reactor technology for converting helium-3 to energy is still in its infancy and could take years to develop.
“The problem is that there is not yet an efficient type of reactor to process helium-3,” he said. “It is currently being done mostly as a laboratory experiment. Right now at the rate which it (research) is proceeding it will take another 30 years.” Other scientists say that the reactor would be safe in terms of radioactive elements and could be built right in the heart of any city.
“Potentially there are large reservoirs of helium-3 on the moon,” DJ Lawrence, a planetary scientist at the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, said.
“Just doing reconnaissance where the minerals are and to find out where helium-3 likes to hang out is the first step, so when the reactor technology gets to work we are ready and have precise information.
“It really could be used as a future fuel and is safe. It is not all science fiction. “There are visionaries out there and now the question arises where the funds come from. If people get on board to do it there is no doubt it could be done.” Dr Taylor echoed Dr Lawrence’s views, adding that there are no funds available for funding non-petroleum energy projects in the United States.
He warns of the exhaustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas on earth.
“By 2050 the whole world will have a major problem. We need to be thinking ahead,” Mr Taylor said. “Right now we are not thinking ahead enough. Some of us are. But then the people who make the decisions and put money on the projects are not. They think only about the next elections.
“If we set our hearts on the moon and have the money to do it, then we do it pretty fast.
“However, it could be done well within 10 years if the sources of finance are generated to get this (reactor) going.”