14 Apr Cosmic Helium: How the Moon Could Save Us
By Reece Davidoff
For years, scientists working on sustainability and climate change issues on Earth have stared up at the Sun, the holy grail of energy production, in envy. The Sun seemed to laugh at our dinky little turbines while it effortlessly generated almost infinite amounts of clean energy. Since the very beginning, all we have been able to do is look—but now, with a little help from our friend the Moon, we could also have that clean, limitless power.
We first need to understand how the Sun pulls off this infinite-energy magic trick. The short answer is: it cheats. The Sun generates energy through nuclear fusion, a process by which atoms fuse and release unimaginable amounts of power. However, this only happens at temperatures upwards of one hundred million degrees, which the Sun reaches using its massive gravitational force. This force essentially squeezes everything in its core together super tightly until it gets hot enough for fusion.
Since the 1950s, the energy world has been drooling over this chemical process. But in addition to figuring out how to create these temperatures on Earth without gravity helping us out, it turns out that type of fuel we need is difficult to find, and dangerous to handle.
The general consensus is that fusion reactors would use deuterium and tritium, two different isotopes (or cousins, if you will) of hydrogen. Each plant would use about 125 kilograms of each substance per year. Deuterium is not an issue—it can easily be harvested from seawater, making it affordable at $13 a gram. Tritium, on the other hand, only occurs when cosmic rays strike nitrogen molecules. Thankfully, the Earth has a big shield called the atmosphere which protects us from these rays, but the atmosphere, unfortunately, also protects these nitrogen molecules. This means tritium is extremely rare on Earth. If you were to try and get your hands on some, you would have to pay $30,000 for one gram—the mere weight of a paperclip. To top it all off, tritium is also highly radioactive, making it dangerous to any living thing.
However, there is an alternative: helium-3, a non-radioactive cousin of helium that could be used instead of tritium. At first, it seems like helium-3 will have a similar issue to tritium: it is only found in cosmic solar dust, and our atmosphere protects us from most of it. But the Moon, which lacks an atmosphere, has been bombarded by this dust for billions of years, and is covered in helium-3. So all we have to do (to avoid the imminent danger our planet faces) is get a nice cozy room up to one hundred million degrees, mine some space dust from the Moon, and fuse it with ocean water hydrogen. Seems easy, right?