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The Moon May Solve Our Energy Problems

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Dr Eric Lai – SCMP | Updated on Oct 24, 2008

Like many young people, I was brought up with a healthy dose of information about space exploration to stimulate my imagination. I’m not exactly sure what is so enticing about the mysteries of space, but I suspect it is similar to what prehistoric man saw as he looked up at the myriad stars and planets.

We are essentially looking at the same sky and, when I find myself on holiday somewhere on a pristine beach away from the light pollution of Hong Kong, I am reminded of the immensity of the universe, with its unfathomable size that generates so much awe and humbles mankind. I may know a little more about the cosmos than our prehistoric ancestors, but probably not that much more in the context of the whole universe.

I remember seeing Halley’s Comet on its last visit in 1986 and, in the same year, Voyager 2’s flyby of Uranus. It was simply a stunning time to be alive, to witness such events as they happened.

During the 1990s space exploration really did slow down, as the countries of the world came back down to Earth to handle the more mundane problem of running the planet and its inhabitants.

But I have noticed in the past year that there seems to be something stirring in the sphere of space exploration, rather than just rhetoric. Several new countries are vying for space real estate left over by the US and the former Soviet Union. There was also the recent unmanned mission to the moon, Chang’e 1. It was the first phase of the Chinese lunar programme, which will hopefully end with ore samples from the moon and, one day, a base there. Then there was the launch of the Indian Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft this week. Like the Chang’e mission, it will send a robotic satellite that will orbit the moon and map the surface. Both hope to find subsurface water and a resource called helium-3.

Just hearing this news of space exploration on the radio and television in the past year has made the less imaginative and more practical part of me wonder why these countries are so belatedly sending missions to the moon when the Americans already did so with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. I can’t imagine any government spending billions of dollars simply for national pride anymore. Like the western world, China has grown beyond the darker times of propaganda into an era of modern communications, where the truth can’t be muffled so easily. So why are China, India, the United States and even countries like Kenya showing renewed interest in the moon?

I found the answer when I heard the term “helium-3” mentioned, although I was surprised it was the reason. When I was doing physics, I learnt that helium-3 is a non-radioactive isotope of regular helium-4. The beauty of helium-3 in a fusion reactor is that the byproducts are less radioactive and, hence, produce less radioactive waste. Current fusion-type reactions indirectly create electricity by heating up water, but when using helium-3, water is not needed and electricity can be generated directly in a more efficient process.

I remember raising my hand in our physics lecture when I first learned about this process to ask the lecturer why we weren’t using it, because it sounded too good to be true. He said: “Helium-3 is rare on Earth and the total amount probably couldn’t generate enough electricity for Australia for two years.”

When I heard that there was helium-3 on the moon, I quickly did some research and some quick maths. There are about 15 tonnes of helium-3 found naturally on Earth, but there are an estimated 1 to 5 million tonnes under the moon’s surface, specifically in an ore called lunar regolith.

Official sources say China needs about 10 tonnes of helium-3 to power the country for a year. My quick calculations are based on China needing 15- 20 tonnes realistically, considering we are not likely to get 100 per cent efficiency. We’ll probably need 150 to 200 tonnes a year to power the entire planet. If it is true about the volume available on the moon, there should be enough there for at least 5,000 to 25,000 years.

No wonder there is a rush to get back on the moon. It is not going to happen overnight, of course. It is predicted a prototype fusion power plant using helium-3 won’t be in operation until 2050 at the earliest, and it will take time for lunar-mined helium-3 to be viable – but it may be worth the wait.

The whole story really gives me hope for mankind. It tells me that there are people in government that have a long-term vision for our planet’s future. It also instils hope that one day, living, working and exploring space will be viable options, when energy is plentiful and cheap. I hope I live long enough to see the return of Halley’s Comet and the mining of the moon.

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