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Space Science Technology

Mine The Moon For Helium-3 644

Rob Kennedy writes "A story at The Daily Cardinal is reporting that UW-Madison researchers are looking to mine the moon for helium-3 as an energy source, which supposedly would yield about 1000 times more energy per pound than coal. Although there are several hurdles that would need to be cleared, The Associated Press mentions one catch in particular: 'The researchers still are working on building a helium-3 reactor that would produce more energy than it takes in.' Indeed. SciScoop has a more in-depth discussion of the prospect."
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Mine The Moon For Helium-3

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  • by Neophytus ( 642863 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:14PM (#8048692)
    Balloon sellers go out of business as prices of helium plummet
    18 year old choirboys whose voices broke 4 years ago rejoyce
    • Re:In other news (Score:5, Interesting)

      by wass ( 72082 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:23PM (#8048841)
      meanwhile cryogenics folks will rejoice because currently He3 is very expensive. And He3 cryostats are the basic workhorse for getting below temperatures of 1K.

      Evaporative pumping of He3 can get you to about 250 mK, and using a He3/He4 dilution refrigerator can get one to about 10 mK.

      A cheaper source of He3 would be good news, currently it's several hundred bucks for (I think) a liter of He3 gas at STP.

  • Associated Press (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 77Punker ( 673758 ) <spencr04 AT highpoint DOT edu> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:14PM (#8048699)
    Put out more energy than it takes in? Once again, never trust the AP for science.
    • by Carnildo ( 712617 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:17PM (#8048751) Homepage Journal
      Put out more energy than it takes in? Once again, never trust the AP for science.

      Actually, that's a serious problem. No one has yet built a fusion reactor that, for sustained periods, produces more energy than it takes to keep running.
      • For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that the He3 fusion plants have been proved out, and folks are frantically building them, just waiting for us to show up with with tanks full of helium-3.

        I think this says it all.
      • It can't produce more energy that is put into it. Electrical energy, plus mechanical energy, plus heat energy, plus the energy in the helium-3. It will never produce more energy than is put into it. Otherwise, you have a problem with the laws of physics.
        • of course energy is conserved, but this doesn't mean you can't get more energy out than you put in. exothermic reactions produce more heat than is required to make them go, the extra heat coming from chemical potential energy. in nuclear plants energy is released when nuclei rearrange themselves. in these cases the energy released was already there but was inaccessible before the reaction.

          another example is solar power - in this case electricity is produced but no energy is put in, in the sense that the en
        • Nuclear power is about releasing nuclear energy already stored in the atom. If the process of releasing that energy consumes less energy than is released, you have a viable nuclear reactor and the laws of thernodynamics are not broken. The AP wording, therefore, is correct.
        • In a closed system, yes, you can't produce more energy than is put into it. But it's NOT a closed system any more than a water wheel or a windmill (or, for that matter, your car or truck...) is. The He-3 is a fuel source and is stored energy that is liberated in a fusion reaction.

          What they're talking about here is the fact that man has been unable, to date, to produce a Fusion reactor that was sustained that liberated more energy from the fuel than was put in to IGNITE it.
      • I believe the theory is that the ones they've built have just been too small.

        Anyways is there not a plan to build a full scale one in France or Japan. Except that not surprisingly the 6 parties involved (E.U., U.S., Japan, Russia, ?, ?) are split down the middle.

        Ah sure, they should just build two of them. Two for the price of one it sure would not be of course! But the E.U. and U.S. won't be good at sharing one. It's like kids - the only way to keep them happy is make sure they all get the same.
    • Its a valid statement. Fusion reactors require more energy to run than is produced in the reaction.

      I don't know how a helium 3 reactor works, but it probably requires more energy to start the reaction than is produced by the reaction. Hopefully that will change.
    • by dekashizl ( 663505 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:34PM (#8048993) Journal
      Put out more energy than it takes in? Once again, never trust the AP for science.

      Not sure if you were attempting humor or just being pedantic. Nobody's claiming to create a perpetual motion machine on the moon. I think we all know what they meant by that statement (i.e. not including energy stored in the Helium itself, which is presumably somewhat abundant), and it gets to the heart of the problem.
  • How high? (Score:4, Funny)

    by macshune ( 628296 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:15PM (#8048700) Journal
    If inhaling Helium-1 makes my voice high, Helium-2 makes it higher, how high will Helium-3 make it?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:15PM (#8048708)
    great now whats going to keep it floating up there??? :)
  • I mean come on. We can't even get one watt of positive energy flow out of Fusion and they already want to mine the moon for it. Let's spend our time developing better fission reactors, including ones for space engines. Then we can use them to get our scientists to the moon so they can play with Helium-3 and Fusion all they want.

    • by Carnildo ( 712617 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:21PM (#8048806) Homepage Journal
      Is there REALLY anything wrong with Fission power?

      Yes. It's politically and socially unacceptable.
    • by Yokaze ( 70883 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:35PM (#8049019)
      >Is there REALLY anything wrong with Fission power?

      Well, some people are waging wars to avoid that they come into wrong hands.
      Next, they are highly profiliated targets for terroristic attacks, and are in need of strong protection.
      Finally maybe, because the backend costs of nuclear reactors make nuclear power (after over 45 years of commercial use) more expensive [asahi.com] as conventional power-plants.
      Which is all inherent to the fact that they use and need very refined and radioactive fuel and produce waste with similar attributes.
      • Well, some people are waging wars to avoid that they come into wrong hands.

        Which is just plain goofy. Uranium is one of the most common substances on the planet. All you need is a process to separate and enrich the stuff.

        Next, they are highly profiliated targets for terroristic attacks, and are in need of strong protection.

        Just about anyone with the proper resources can build an atomic nuke (H-Bombs are a little trickier). The main problem is shaping the triggering explosion correctly to instill "supe
    • Yes. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:19PM (#8049542) Homepage

      (Yes, I know that others have said the same thing- but allow me to expand on this...)

      When Chernobyl reactor #4 exploded, it sprayed a radioactive cloud that would have killed everyone for many hundreds of miles around the damn thing if it weren't for the prevailing wind conditions and the local fauna dissipating goodly portions of the radioactive cloud. (To put what we are talking about here in perspective, the soldiers collecting bits and pieces of the moderator debris flung from the reactor recieved their lifetime safe dosage of radiation in the 90 or so seconds they were out picking this stuff up. They all died, by the way, over the following several years with various unusual conditions- as if they were irradiated with a very high radiation dose over several months' time.)

      We were lucky with the Three Mile Island incident- had it gone just a little differently, we'd have experienced our OWN Chernobyl.

      While I'm all for improving Fission reactors, the risks are still WAAAAY high for when something screws up (and invariably it does...) and the ash from the current fission designs is too damn dangerous to keep about and we've got no good way of disposing of it in a safe manner.
      • Re:Yes. (Score:3, Informative)

        by olman ( 127310 )
        Ignorance may be a bliss, but it can be unhealthy as well.

        Check out two international studies. Unscear report [unscear.org] and UN report [un.org]. UN also has pretty clueful page [chernobyl.info] on chernobyl in general. We're talking about moderate increase in occurrence of cancer with some 10000-20000 cases attributed to the accident. Fatality is pretty low, thought, so casualties are some 100s.
    • by Tailhook ( 98486 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @10:11PM (#8051145)
      In the past I believed that public resistance to power reactors was founded in ignorance, and therefore without merit. It is, but some knee-jerk reactions are healthy.

      Last Friday the Tennessee reactor called WATTS BAR was SCRAM-ed. A SCRAM is an emergency procedure where the core's control rods are rapidly inserted to halt the reaction. SCRAMs are routine. Reactors SCRAM themselves and are manually SCRAM-ed under a large number of conditions.

      Here is a quote from the WATTS BAR report to the NRC on this "event"; "The licensee also reported that all control rods inserted on the reactor trip, no primary or secondary system relief valves operated, and that reactor temperature is being maintained using steam dump to the condenser. Steam generator water levels are being maintained using auxiliary feedwater. The station electrical system is available and in a normal configuration. All ECCS equipment is available. The reactor is currently stable at 2230 psig, 559 degrees Fahrenheit."

      Something about having to report the condition of control rods and water levels directly to the Federal Government makes me doubt exactly how safe this stuff actually is. That paragraph follows a template that varies based primarily on which parts of the back-up systems fail post SCRAM, and this is an unusual report in that none did.

      Machine's break, people mess up, things get neglected, overlooked and forgotten. The consequences at a coal or gas power generating facility are localized deaths and equipment damage. The consequences at a fission reactor range from trivial to catastrophic, in a biblical sense. We have never suffered the worst case. Chernobyl did not even begin to approach it.

      Also, last Friday, the DAVIS BESSE facility in Ohio reported that, according to their simulations, a steam line break could potentially compromise all low-voltage systems and battery backups available at the reactor by overpressuring some doors. That's a useful discovery. Too bad it took 27 years to notice. It probably isn't coincidental that this particlar facility is being scrutinized with a microscope and thus rendering interesting new discoveries like this. Two years ago refueling workers discovered that boric acid had eaten through the steam generator casing down to the stainless steel inner lining [nrc.gov]. 8" of low alloy steel gone and all of the pressure generated by the nuclear reaction retained by a 3/8" layer of stainless steel.

      I have no animus towards the power companies. I am not an activist exaggerating to support an agenda. Paranoia about nuclear waste is nothing more than trumped up NIMBY. "Deregulation" isn't causing a degradation of safety. It's just the nature of any large industrial system; everything breaks eventually. Hell, everything is already broken and we have simply failed to notice, yet.

      I now believe that fission reactors are inherently dangerous, including recent improved designs. It is the nature of a fission reactor to melt down unless prevented from doing so. We are very good at preventing this. We are not, however, perfect. We are people operating machines.

      In contrast, fusion appears much safer. The challenge of fusion is getting more power out of the reaction than you put in. By definition the reaction will stop if the input fails. It is the nature of a fusion reactor to stop unless prevented from doing so. Unless some foul-up closes the loop it can't spiral out-of-control.
  • by CommieLib ( 468883 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:15PM (#8048718) Homepage
    Wow. Here's a space.com article [space.com] from three and a half years ago on the same subject.
  • The Associated Press mentions one catch in particular: 'The researchers still are working on building a helium-3 reactor that would produce more energy than it takes in.'

    That, and the fact that Amazon doesn't offer Super Saver Shipping on Helium-3. It'll be fun to see if they can come up with a way to utilize that power and get it here without wasting an equilvalent amount of power for the process itself. Negative efficiency in excess of -100% of your input is baaad.
  • by hpa ( 7948 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:17PM (#8048740) Homepage
    Well, we're still working [iter.org] on getting a net-gain fusion reaction going with deuterium and tritium, which is a considerably easier fusion reaction to start than deuterium and Helium-3. The advantage with the D-He3 reaction is that it is theoretically aneutronic, but in any D-He3 fusion-capable environment you're going to have enough D-D fusion to have to worry about neutrons anyway...
    • I'm willing to bet that we'll still be working on getting a mining opperation up and running on the moon by the time we are ready for D-He3 reactors. It just makes good sense to start laying the groundwork for a mining opperation if it will take 10-15 years to get going.

      It's just like cooking dinner, you don't wait for each thing to finish cooking, you start things off at next to each other so when you want things to be done, they'll be ready at the same time.
  • Any other cynics out there thinking some Haliburton exec read some popular science mag and talk Cheney/Bush to annex the Moon for them quick?
    • by zulux ( 112259 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:23PM (#8048844) Homepage Journal
      Any other cynics out there thinking some Haliburton exec read some popular science mag and talk Cheney/Bush to annex the Moon for them quick?

      Noam?? Is that you??

    • Any other cynics out there thinking some Haliburton exec read some popular science mag and talk Cheney/Bush to annex the Moon for them quick?

      In other news, President Bush declared the Moon-men "part of the axis of evil" and has announced the start of "Operation Loony Freedom", to liberate Earth's satelite from "Moon-men tear-or-wrists with nooky-leer Weapons of Mass Moon Destruction (WMMDs)".

      Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was quoted as saying that, for reasons of national security, all energy concessions
  • by js7a ( 579872 ) * <james@@@bovik...org> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:18PM (#8048754) Homepage Journal
    ...just like it was 50 years ago.
  • Finally, UW Madison gets mentioned for something useful, unlike this story. [slashdot.org]
  • Come on. As if the Oil Lobby will ever allow a cleaner, more efficient energy source to be available to consumers. How much effort has Dubbya given to his "Hydrogen Car" initiative beyond 10 minutes of lip service??
    • by eaolson ( 153849 )

      Come on. As if the Oil Lobby will ever allow a cleaner, more efficient energy source to be available to consumers. How much effort has Dubbya given to his "Hydrogen Car" initiative beyond 10 minutes of lip service??

      If you consider the fact that pretty much the only commercially viable way to make H2 in serious quantity is by using CH4 (i.e. natural gas), the Hydrogen Car idea becomes even more useless. Sure, you could crack H2O into H2 and O2, but that's terribly energy intensive and no one does it

  • If we take all the helium off the moon, then what's gonna hold it up there!? gasp! cringe!
  • Back to Earth (Score:3, Insightful)

    by munch0wnsy0u ( 619737 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:21PM (#8048812)
    That is all well and good that it produces a substantial, if not infinite, amount of energy more than coal does, but realize that the energy needed to get it back to earth lessens its appeal and ultimately, its usefulness. Unless it is specifically directed towards interplanetary spaceflight to planets beyond our own, I say leave it be until then.
    • Re:Back to Earth (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Guppy06 ( 410832 )
      "but realize that the energy needed to get it back to earth lessens its appeal"

      Um... we're the densest chunk of anything in the star system and the biggest gravity sinkhole within 150E6 km. We're living on a great big bullseye. Ever wonder why the far side of the moon has many more craters than the near side? Better yet, ever wonder why we have this monsterous moon to begin with?

      The "hard" part of the moon-to-earth journey is bleeding off the kinetic energy of the moon's orbit, but even that is insanel
  • This is old news. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Blingin' AMD ( 625054 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:21PM (#8048821)
    Dating from the 1980's [wisc.edu]

    If just the US can run on "one space shuttle load" per year of this astrofuel, then what about more densely populated countries, like China or Japan?

    What will the petroleum lobby think about this?

    What political repercussions would result if a US president pulled crap like OPEC does (threatening embargoes, being real bastards with prices, etc;) today if the US were to follow through with a plan like this?

    What will mining the moon do to things like tides here on Earth? (shifting mass like that on the surface/possibly expelling it into space -which I hope won't be the case, that would be really bad-)

    Do you honestly think this will remove our dependence on fossil fuel completely? Look at your computer. It's prolly got a lot of plastic in, on, and around it. Same with probably the rest of your room. Multiply that by a couple/few billion and you get the idea. Also, with the demand for plastic products growing ever more insistent, by the time (if) we get to enact a feasible plan for mining the moon, how much oil will be required to make non-energy products?

    How greatly do you think this will change civilization as we know it? We'll still have electricity, the only difference would prolly be that we're mining it from the moon, from a consumer standpoint, that is. What humanitarian /technology/quality-of-life improvements do you think we, as people in a social/civilization context will see as a direct result of mining energy from the moon?

    Call me a pessimist bastard who says the glass is half empty. I don't necessarily see THIS glass as half empty, but I don't see it as half full either. I'd say I see it as just another damn glass with some damn water in it. If we get our energy from the moon, whoopty-friggin'-do, we'll be getting it from the moon, we'll still pay for it. We'll still have electricity. Just be sure to inform me when they find a way to make something like plastic out of something other than oil (for instance polymerizing something more readily available, say, water. ) THEN will I be more enthusiastic.

  • Energy problem (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dark Paladin ( 116525 ) * <<jhummel> <at> <johnhummel.net>> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:23PM (#8048838) Homepage
    Ignoring the issues of transportation, construction, etc, etc, etc, the "creation of more energy than it uses" strikes me as fascinating.

    The goal behind using He^3 is that you can transport it. Cool the sucker down, put it into a canister, ship it back to Earth and use it there. Next thing you know, the Middle East doesn't matter anymore. (Please, no politics.)

    Again, ignoring the issues of having the stuff explode on reintry, how to get it all back, etc, etc, etc.

    But the energy issue really isn't one. Last time I checked, the Moon doesn't have an atmosphere, so solar energy is easier to get to than on Earth. At that point, you can have a system produce all the He^3 you want, and who cares about initial efficiency when you've got Big Old Mr. Sun providing your energy for you?

    Just a thought. This is the kind of thing that 100 years down the road could be useful, and I'm probably making bad assumptions, but the idea is still kind of cool.
  • by hcg50a ( 690062 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:23PM (#8048839) Journal
    Two University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists believe moon rocks contain all the energy the United States needs for the next millennium.

    I love it. We don't even have economic fusion yet, and these guys are talking about mining the fuel from the moon.

    It would seem that with standard deuterium and tritium fusion, involving only plentiful isotopes of hydrogen found on Earth, there's utterly no need to get helium from the moon.

    The main problem is the mastering the fusion process itself, not where we're gonna get the fuel from!
  • This has been discussed for years and how close are we to a working, ie more energy out than we put in, prototype are we??

    Once we have a proper working efficient reactor then moon ahoy.

    Build the reactors on the moon as well and use microwve transmitters to beam the power to earth via reciever satellites.

    Gotta be safer and cheaper than multi-tonne rocks of froxen HE3 (the only mass sensible way of moving it) being fired at us by linear accelerator.
  • B.S. (Score:2, Interesting)

    The scientists who dealt with the press report said the moon is "a source of potentially unlimited energy in the form of helium 3 isotope."

    Any scientist who claims there is unlimited energy on any planet needs to go back to Thermodynamics 101...

    This story is nonsense.

  • by dasmegabyte ( 267018 ) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:25PM (#8048878) Homepage Journal
    No wonder Bush wants to build a moon base!

    Seriously, say what you will about him, the President is a man who understands the approaching energy crisis. If it's true that the fossil-based economy will expire by 2040 (the number quoted by my college professor), then we're looking at a very violent game of hot potato over the remaining fuel. Controlling the next generation energy supply could be important if fossil fuels remain the most efficient way to get to space.

    Of course, I'd much rather see renewable Earth sources of fuel (like solar, geothermal, corn oil, etc)...but then, nobody CONTROLS the sun. So there's no economic or political incentive like there is with an exclusive source like oil or nuclear.
  • by clmensch ( 92222 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:26PM (#8048880) Homepage Journal
    "In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!"
    - Homer J. Simpson

  • So He-3 provides 1000 times the energy of coal. Exactly how much more costly is extracting a pound of He-3 from the moon than extracting a pound of coal from a hill in America?

    A million times more expensive? Ten million times more expensive?

    I'm no economist, but that sounds like the most retarded business plan I've ever heard. Ohh ya, maybe we should worry about making fusion reactions a net energy creator before we start talking about mining the moon for fuel.

  • by macshune ( 628296 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:28PM (#8048901) Journal
    Two UW Madison Professors announced plans today to help supplement waning global cheese supplies by mining the moon for cheese.

    "The moon has a virtually unlimited supply of cheese, most notably the Pepperjackus Mons. This literal hill-of-cheese is an area that is the size of Rhode Island and comprised entirely of pepperjack," said Professor Klaus von Berrywinkle.

    Cheese is typically mined in third-world countries with little regard for safety standards or labor laws. Authoritarian regimes usually hold sway over the cheese mines as well and placating them is a full-time priority for many governments.

    "Unfortunately, cheddar is in short supply on the moon, but it is feasible that there is a cache of it somewhere that has eluded our che-dar," chortled Professor Eniac van Bumblybum.

    The scientists later added that the supply of cheese on the moon would last the Earth thousands of years at the current rate of consumption.

    "Although it would last quite awhile at the current rate of consumption, the past has shown that when you remove constraints consumption rises dramtically. I would not be surprised if, given a more efficient method of transportation, all the cheese on the moon would be eaten within 3-5 generations," Berrywinkle portended.
  • which supposedly would yield about 1000 times more energy per pound than coal

    Well, OF COURSE it would...it's HELIUM, for crying out loud...I mean, it weights negative pounds! That's why they pit it in balloons!! That's gotta be screwing up their smarty-pants equations.

    Man, I gotta get ME one of those research grants.
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by El ( 94934 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:30PM (#8048938)
    "helium-3... would yield about 1000 times more energy per pound than coal. And cost about 10,000 times more per pound to mine... doesn't sound like a big economic win to me.
  • by Rostin ( 691447 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:31PM (#8048945)
    They don't even have a reactor yet that produces net power, and they are estimating that the moon has enough helium to supply the earth with energy for a thousand years? What could they possibly be basing this estimate on.

    "Gee Bob, some journalist wants to know how much energy is on the moon. Should I assume that the reactor we may or may not be able to come up with will be 99% efficient or 5% efficient?"

    "I'd go with 99%. We're running low on grant money."
  • One cargo supply would provide the United States with all the electricity it needs for a year, according to the scientists.

    and the rest of the world is happy as well.

  • This is news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by kaszeta ( 322161 ) <rich@kaszeta.org> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:34PM (#8048995) Homepage
    Harrison Schmitt, who happens to be both an Adjunct Professor at Wisconsin [wisc.edu] as well as a former Apollo astronaut [nasa.gov] has been harping on this for years (since the mid-70s).

    I'm not sure why this warrants an article now, seeing that no real developments on the topic have happened in a long time...

  • Fuzzy Math! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WndrBr3d ( 219963 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @06:58PM (#8049286) Homepage Journal
    NASA says each Space Shuttle Launch would costs around $500 million per.

    The average space shuttle (as an example of a reusable space vehicle) can carry 65,000 pounds of cargo each flight.

    This means that each pound of helium-3 would cost $7,692.31.. and thats just at cost to cover transport from the moon. Not including the initial setup of mining operations and cost of running the facilities to turn it into energy.

    Now, as for powering possible MOON colonies, understandable. But for eath? The money would probably best be spent in the (never ending) quest for fusion.
  • by Qrlx ( 258924 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:00PM (#8049324) Homepage Journal
    Call me old fashioned, but I think we should find a better solution to our energy needs. Either use less of the stuff, and/or find ways to meet our energy needs more efficiently. Something renewable, like solar or wind, would be nice.

    So let's say we end up with a huge energy glut from this moon idea. Ubiquitous energy will mean no need for efficiency, and consumption will grow unchecked. We'll need a new moon in no time.
  • by stealth.c ( 724419 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:10PM (#8049431)
    Slap a solar panel on top of everyone's house in America, and with proper energy-saving, energy-sharing, and energy-storing techniques we'd never need a conventional power plant again. It would be a sizable initial investment (mostly infrastructure), but the payoffs are invaluable. We'd annihilate much of the need for foreign oil, power bills would plummet, pollution would decrease, and Chicago wouldn't be a smog-riddled wasteland ;).

    Heck. Combine just a little solar power with this H3 stuff (assuming they CAN do this) and the "energy crisis" is basically solved. Until the Moon runs out.
  • by Flwyd ( 607088 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:13PM (#8049464) Homepage
    Is how they'll land a spaceship with that much helium on board. :-)
    • Gently, I'd assume.

      And not for the (apparently) obvious reason that Helium is lighter-than-air.
      (you see, it's only 'lighter' when/because it has lower density for the same volume)

      In order for this to be a profitable enterprise, you'd pack the He3 as densely as possible into the return vessel.

      So now you have (a) approaching engineering weight limits for return vessel (b) approaching structural integrity limits (ie maximum pressure) for return vessel (at least, for parts thereof).

      I for one would not be lo
  • by Dan Crash ( 22904 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:18PM (#8049537) Journal
    I've seen several articles about the Moon's He3 resources, but almost none about the Moon's even greater potential as a source of solar power. According to an article by Dr. David Criswell, Director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston:
    The surface of Earth's moon receives 12,000 TW of absolutely predictable solar power. The LSP System uses 10 to 20 pairs of bases to collect on the order of 1% of the solar power reaching the lunar surface. The collected sunlight is converted to many low-intensity beams of microwaves and directed to rectennas on Earth. Each rectenna converts the microwave power to electricity that is fed into the local electric grid. The system could easily deliver the 20 TW or more of electric power required by 10 billion people. Adequate knowledge of the moon and practical technologies have been available since the late 1970s to collect this power and beam it to Earth.
    Here's a link to the Google cache of that lunar solar power article [].
  • by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:40PM (#8049739) Journal
    Mining the moon would require placing the equivalent of heavy "earth" moving equipment on the surface. Doing that is expensive. So is getting the results back off the surface. He3 is only in the first few feet of moon surface because it comes from the sun. Go to the source.

    A better design would be a sol-centric orbital platform, say in Mercury's L-5 point, collecting solar wind via magnetic trap (the "ram-scoop" idea) and using an on board mass spectrometer to separate the components, which are then bottled for use, storage or shipping. In that orbit, there'd be sufficient solar power to run all that.

    Set up a veritable merry-go-round of solar sail craft to go pick up and return the He3, and whatever else you want, and pay nothing in fuel costs. So what if they're slow. They're cheap. Build lots. Build *them* on the moon, or better, out of asteroids. You don't want these things slamming into Earth? Don't nuke 'em, smelt 'em.

    Gerard O'Neill gave us lots of good ideas. We'd do well to remember that he didn't get them from professional scientists and engineers with reputations to make and maintain. He got them from undergraduates, whose class project it was to think these things up. Having a reputation to lose to your less foresightful colleagues sure puts a damper on innovation.
  • Great book (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jkabbe ( 631234 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:41PM (#8049757)
    Check out Mining the Sky [amazon.com]

    It talks a lot about this kind of thing.
  • by zapp ( 201236 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @07:45PM (#8049811)
    researchers still are working on building a helium-3 reactor that would produce more energy than it takes in

    So let's see, the only thing in the way of their plans is this silly little law of physics that says energy in must equal energy out. period. you can't create energy, you can't destroy it.

    On the same line, getting to the galaxy next door is right around the corner, we just need to figure out how to go 10,000x the speed of light.

    Oh, and immortality is close too, we just need to get around that "death" thing.

    Gimme a break.
  • A lot of tailings (Score:3, Informative)

    by N3Bruce ( 154308 ) <n3lsy@nOSpaM.comcast.net> on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @08:11PM (#8050111) Journal
    It was stated in the article that there was about 1.1 million tons of He3 on the moon, to a depth of several meters, half of it in about 20 percent of the moon's surface. Now lets get out our calculators kiddies:

    Surface Area of Moon = 4*pi*r**2 where r is about equal to 1,100 miles is about 14,000,000 square miles, give or take.

    Mineable surface of moon = 20 percent of 14,000,000 square miles, or about 2.8 million square miles. This is only slightly less than the area of the Continental United States.

    Mine Depth: for sake of arguement, lets just say 10 feet, or about 1/500 of a mile, which is slightly more than 3 meters.

    Total volume of moon to be mined = .002 * 2.8 million = 5,600 cubic miles of moondust, to recover about 500,000 tons of He3. This much liquified He3 could be contained in only a few supertankers, but the amout of material to be moved would be enormous, and would fill a quarry the size of Connecticut nearly a mile deep. I worked out a similar problem trying to estimate the cost of building A Bridge to Hawaii [everything2.com]. Assuming a specific gravity of about 3, this would require processing a staggering 84 Trillion Tons of material. Of course, 1/6 of the gravity would make it easier to lift, but the costs of getting the heavy equipment to move all of this moondust would be truly enormous.
  • coal (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cybercuzco ( 100904 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @09:39PM (#8050881) Homepage Journal
    Coal: $.078/lb
    So unless you can go to the moon, process the helium 3 and bring it back from the moon for less than $78.50/lb its not worth it. Currently it costs $10,000 to send a lb of material to Low earth orbit. Its at least 5 times as much to put a lb on the moon. Not to mention, How do you get it back to earth? you need to get it back through the atmosphere that means you have to send up some sort of capsule to bring it back with, again at great expense. Until you have enough manufacturing capability on the moon to manufacture all the stuff you need to send he3 back, its just not worth it.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @09:44PM (#8050922) Homepage
    If we could actually build He-He fusion rockets, which we don't know how to do, that would be a workable propulsion system. That reaction doesn't create neutrons, and if the gammas were absorbed into distilled water to produce steam and thrust, the radioactive waste problem would be minor. The fuel fraction would be far lower than with chemical rockets. We'd finally be able to build a space vehicle that didn't spend most of its fuel trying to lift fuel.

    We don't need lunar mining to do this. Helium 3 has been made in kilogram quantities over the years. Tritium decays into helium-3 with a half life of 12 years, and fifty years of tritium production for H-bombs has resulted in a stockpile of helium-3. It's a weird fuel cycle. Tritium is created by transmutation in nuclear reactors, loaded into H-bombs, allowed to decay, and replaced with fresh tritium after a few years. Helium-3 is then separated out from the decayed tritium.

    The US's tritium production facility (Savannah River, K-reactor) has been shut down since 1993. A replacement facility is being built to do transmutation the hard way - with a big linear accelerator. [lanl.gov] This is hopeless as a power source, of course. But it might be acceptable as a way to make fuel for fusion rockets. Tritium is also being produced in some of Canada's heavy-water reactors, and one of the TVA's reactors is being modified to produce tritium. But right now, the supply is a bit tight. Not too tight, though; you can buy tritium-illuminated exit signs and watches.

    The US tritium and helium-3 stockpile sizes are classified, because they give a hint as to how many US nuclear weapons are still functional. The Accelerator Production of Tritium facility is supposed to make about 3Kg of tritium per year, which provides a sense of what can be produced.

    This isn't cheap, but it doesn't require a giant lunar mining infrastructure. If He-He fusion can be made to work, it's the cleanest and safest way to go.

  • Here we go again... (Score:4, Informative)

    by toxic666 ( 529648 ) on Wednesday January 21, 2004 @11:09PM (#8051582)
    I repeat:

    I did a back of the napkin based upon the He3 info posted on space.com.

    http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/helium3_00 06 30.html

    They said there is about 70 tons He3 per million tons of regolith.

    That comes in at concentrations that would be a nice gold or platinum deposit on earth (about 1.75 oz/ton He3), but is a very low concentration for anything other than a precious metal. The extraction temp quoted in the article is 800C (1470F) and would require a lot of energy. This would require very large solar panels and MANY trips to get them up there.

    No, you are not going to fabricate solar panels on the moon. The moon's regolith is composed of refractory minerals like anorthite that (while benched in a NASA lab yield silica) are not feasible as silica sources because of the high energy requirements and expensive crucibles needed.

    Then there is the distribution of He3 in regolith. If it only occurs in the top few inches of regolith, you need the kind of equipment that can mine only that portion. Otherwise you dilute the ore feed and end up treating material devoid of the resource at great cost.

    Then you have to deal with removing the gasses that come off in addition to H3. Water and O2 woudl be useful, but F, Cl and the other volatiles typically found in rocks and regolith would be a problem.

    Assuming we come up with a feasible fusion reactor, it looks like it will be cheaper to deal with neutrons than import a clean fuel from the moon.

"If it's not loud, it doesn't work!" -- Blank Reg, from "Max Headroom"