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Fly me to the moon (and let me mine among the stars)

Several years ago a young boy asked me during a presentation if we might be able to pipe in oil and natural gas from the Moon or other planets. I thanked him for the idea and explained that the cost of a pipeline would be far greater than the value of any oil and natural gas we might find.

But dreams of exploiting mineral wealth on other celestial bodies lurk not only in the minds of young boys, but also in the minds of intelligent and completely sane adults. The most recent iteration of this dream comes from scientists working on fusion energy. It turns out that helium-3, a rare isotope of helium, may be useful as fuel for fusion reactors. The very small quantities of helium-3 available on planet Earth are a byproduct of the manufacture of hydrogen bombs using tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Ironically, one of the advantages of helium-3 in fusion reactors is that it lends itself less to weapons proliferation than tritium, the decay of which is the source of helium-3. In addition, helium-3 fueled reactors would produce no radioactive waste.

The problem is getting sufficient quantities of the stuff. The solution according to one scientist working on a helium-3 fusion reactor is to mine the isotope on the Moon and bring it back to Earth. The Moon's surface is thought to contain a million tons. At the current price of $7,000 a gram with a little more than 900,000 grams to a ton, that works out to be about $6.3 quadrillion. One could expect the price to decline somewhat should a steady supply become available.

I am reminded of James Howard Kunstler's admonition that during times of great stress mass delusions of deliverance--in this case through technology--are often afoot. I cannot fault fusion researchers for working on the intriguing problem of sustaining a fusion reaction that will produce more energy than it consumes. Nor can I fault them for seeking out the safest fuel possible. But the drumbeat in the media that alternatives are just around the corner--if we will only do things such as set up a Moon base and mine the surface--take the public's eye off more viable responses.

This is no conspiracy. The past 150 years of astonishing technical advances have trained us all to expect more of the same in response to every perceived problem. We've actually been to the Moon and back, carrying hundreds of pounds of its surface with us on the return trip for use in scientific investigations. Couldn't we just go back and do it on a greater scale?

The potential financial rewards may make it seem possible. But wait! First, we have to perfect fusion using helium-3. This is where the public and the media conveniently forget that scientists, some of them quite well-funded, have been working on fusion energy for 60 years already. And yet, even the most lavishly funded of the current crop of projects, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), explains on its website that "[t]he timescale to commercial fusion therefore extends until at least the middle of this century...." All this should tell us that the technical hurdles to producing commercial electricity from fusion may never be breached or at least not in any time frame that matters to a world whose main sources of energy, fossil fuels, will certainly peak and begin declining before mid-century and likely much sooner.

In addition, many of the services that are necessary to ITER are currently powered by fossil fuels--though one must admit that ITER's location in France means it is more dependent on the power generation of conventional fission reactors than it would be elsewhere. But even those fission reactors are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their servicing.

To the already long, complex logistics chain for reactors, the proponents of the helium-3 fueled version of the fusion reactor hope someday to add mining on the Moon. Of course, it is in the nature of humans to dream. And, their technological dreams have been made manifest in many ways in the industrial age. But the fulfillment of those dreams has been largely due to the wide availability and low cost of energy resources, the vast majority of them from fossil fuels.

Ignorant of that reality we can imagine just about anything--even mining camps on the Moon with ore-carrying shuttles. But the decline of fossil fuels--which have up until now allowed us to harbor such daydreams--may soon shock us back to reality and return us to the urgent task of organizing a society that runs on less, not more energy.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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