The Moon's Riches

May 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

The moon is full of helium 3. The Earth has pitifully little of it. This is just as well. If Earth had as much helium 3 as that found on the Moon, there would be no life on it.

"It took 15 years (after the first lunar landing in 1969) for us [lunar geologists and fusion pioneers] to stumble across each other.” — Harrison Schmitt, fusion researcher and the last astronaut to leave footprints on the moon.

Helium 3, like its vastly more plentiful cousin helium, is produced in the heart of the Sun. It was one of the elements discovered in the Sun (by analysing sunlight) before they were found on Earth. Hence its name: “helios” means “Sun” in Greek.

The sun is a huge ball of gas, made up mostly of hydrogen, the most abundant matter in the observable universe. In its heart, immense pressure continually fused two hydrogen atoms into a new element, helium.

Most helium atoms have two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus. One out of every 10,000 fusions produces a helium atom with a neutron missing. Scientists named it helium 3.

Nuclear fusion releases huge amounts of energy that radiates out of the Sun to space. It is the origin of sunlight. The energy also throws out untold billions of tons of matter, among them helium and helium 3, as high speed charged particles to all parts of the solar system and beyond. These particles, called solar wind, travel at 3 million km an hour, and cross the immense distance between the Sun and Earth in just 50 hours.

Most of the solar wind is deflected by Earth’s magnetic field, which extends out as an uneven bubble to 50,000 km in space. Inside the bubble, life thrives.

The moon has virtually no magnetic field. The solar winds have been hitting it head on, year after year for billions of years. The impact has lodged helium 3 on the powdery lunar soil. Meteor impacts, which give the moon its crater covered look, scatter helium 3 all over the surface.

There is an estimated 1 million tons of helium 3 on the moon.

Helium fusion has been carried out in laboratories where a helium 3 atom is fused with an atom of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. The fusion creates helium (the normal sort), hydrogen and lots of energy. The process is “clean” – non-radioactive and non-pollutive – and both the helium and hydrogen obtained can be captured for industrial use. It is a dream process, provided scientists can work out how to carry it out on a commercial scale.

Helium 3 was discovered after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969, in the shuttle of Apollo 11. By then America had been working on nuclear fusion for 18 years. But space and fusion research were separate disciplines, and it took another 15 years before cross-disciplinary researchers such as Harrison Schmitt established the link. Twenty years on, the race is now well under way to mine helium 3 on the moon.


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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.


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