19 July 2011

34 Teams Race to Luna for He-3 Aneutronic Fusion Fuel?

Why are 34 teams of hopeful aerospace engineers competing to be the first to return to the lunar surface? National teams from the US, Russia, China, Japan, and India are shooting for the moon. Besides them, 29 other teams are signed up for the Google X Prize lunar competition, with its $30 million purse put up by Google. It sounds like a lot of work to get to a big lump of airless rock exposed to periodic extremes of hot and cold. Besides the fact "that it's there," why would people risk so much of their lives to make it possible for humans to work on the moon -- either personally or by robotic proxy?
’Some people argue that the first group of trillionaire entrepreneurs will be involved in the commercialisation of space,’ said Michael Potter, leader of the first team to register for the Lunar X Prize, Odyssey Moon.

... The biggest goal for commercial Moon landings is believed to be helium-3, the isotope of the inert gas that could be a useful fuel for nuclear fusion because, unlike the most common form of fusion in research, which forces the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium together, He-3 does not release a neutron when it fuses with hydrogen. Extremely rare on Earth, the main source of He-3 is from maintenance of nuclear weapons. But the Sun produces large amounts of He-3, sending it out into space in the solar wind. Earth’s atmosphere prevents it from reaching the surface of the planet, but the Moon has no such protection its surface has been absorbing the element for billions of years.

It has been estimated that there are 1.1 million tonnes of He-3 absorbed into the first few metres’ depth of the lunar surface, which could be recovered by heating lunar dust; and that 25 tonnes of the element which would fit in a volume the size of the space shuttle’s cargo bay could power the US for a year. This gives it a value of something approaching £2bn per tonne.

This isn’t all, Potter said. ’In the past two years there have been amazing discoveries,’ he said. ’Water on the Moon, large ice deposits, interesting discoveries related to magnetic fields and lunar dust. There’s still a tremendous amount we don’t know about what we’re calling the Eighth Continent. The science community wants to know more and the research dollars will continue to be put in. In a sense, we’re looking at ourselves as selling picks and shovels to goldminers.’ _Engineer

Humans certainly need a frontier -- a challenge -- to keep from turning their restless energies against each other or against themselves. There is still a great deal that humans can learn and do in and around the extremes of the deep oceans and the deep earth, but why settle for just one or two frontiers?

The deep Earth supplied a surprise recently when scientists learned that half of the planet's internal heat is being generated by the radioactive decay of isotopes of uranium, thorium, and potassium. Which reminds me that there is thorium on the moon, making the running of MSR thorium fission reactors on the moon possible for a very long time.

Certainly the Earth has plenty of thorium -- a lot more than it has uranium. It appears to be time that the Earth changed its approach to energy-for-the-future.

Forward thinking humans have a huge problem centered in their political classes. Most advanced nations are under the control of backward looking energy starvationists (and carbon hysterics) -- which puts the future on a very tenuous footing indeed. How humans settle the problem of a neo-Luddite political class, which -- along with its Green supporters -- appears to want to use an agenda of energy starvation to rebalance the human population of the planet, will determine whether all the X Prizes in the world can break the political and ideological logjam holding them back from an abundant future.

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Blogger kurt9 said...

We need eneutronic fusion power plants in order for all of that lunar He3 to be useful to us.

Tuesday, 19 July, 2011  
Blogger Loren said...

How about a reality TV show return? With SpaceX's rockets, it'd probably just a bit more than half a billion, but with the right setup, the stuff you put in orbit would be reusable, and selling tickets for less than $100 million would pay for everything. Show would just be publicity.

Tuesday, 19 July, 2011  
Blogger neil craig said...

The articles calim that 2 tonnes of deuterium would be enough to power the USA depends on us actually having the fusion reactors - which we are a very long way from.

My guess is that the killer app of space development will be manufacturing in zero G. There are going to be a vast number of materials that can be made in zero G that simply can't in a gravity fired (so far we can only go up to IOce15 but many more should be possible, the same applies to long crystals which tend to break off in gravity fields or foamed metals). If the total of compounds manufacturable in orbit exceeds all those currently made it a certainty there will be many valuable ones.

Wednesday, 20 July, 2011  
Blogger LarryD said...

If we're lucky, either or both of Polywell or Dense Plasma Focus will pan out. Reversed Field also might pan out. On the other end of the spectrum, Tokomaks just don't work.

Both the Polywell and Dense Plasma Focus research are looking into boron-11 as aneutronic fuel

Friday, 22 July, 2011  

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