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Moon Mining: Myth or reality?

By Shameem Kazmi - 27 Sep 2012 14:0:0 GMT
Moon Mining: Myth or reality?

Moon and Earth Image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Who would think that the lunar landings in the 1960's and 1970's by NASA would pave the way for one of the way for possibly one of the biggest conflicts ever to be seen, and it hasn't happened yet? This is the chase to find a secure, reliable and clean energy sources to feed the power thirsty nations on earth.

Governments around the world are looking to alternative sources of energy. Secure, clean, less waste and of course the reduction in carbon emissions that is the catalyst of climate change. Nuclear power is seen as a reliable source of energy and the chosen option for future power generation. Despite the enthusiasm for nuclear energy as a carbon-zero energy source, there are still issues around radiation, safety, uranium mining, and nuclear weapons through enrichment. Waste and decommissioning nuclear plants is a major problem, costing millions of pounds in decommissioning and nuclear waste buried for hundreds of years underground.

For decades scientists have been trying to make nuclear power from nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion makes use of the same energy source that fuels stars, including our sun. This process doesn't produce the radioactivity and nuclear waste, as would be found in nuclear power stations, as this process if different, and known as nuclear fission. One source of raw material to make nuclear fusion is helium-3. Helium-3 is different from other helium gasses, it is a lighter isotope and when it fuses with other nuclei it releases energy with no radioactive waste. The energy stored in helium-3 is 10times the amount of energy found in fossil fuels.

Helium-3 has been emitted by our sun for billions of years and is carried by solar winds, but Earth has a magnetic field that deflects these particles away, so the only helium-3 found on earth is from bi-products of nuclear weapons and this is extremely scarce. The moon however, has been continuously bombarded with helium-3 particles for billions of years. It is estimated that the moon has an abundance of helium-3 in the region of 1million tonnes. The estimated price of helium-3 is £4.5billion per tonne. It is estimated that to power the earth for a year would only take only 100 tonnes, so we have a potential clean power source for 10,000 years.

The process will be very expensive and require billions of pounds of investment. The extracting and refining of helium-3 will require new technologies, as the material is low in concentrations in the lunar surface. Around one million tonnes of lunar soil will be needed to mined and processed for every tonne of helium-3. There will also need to be new nuclear power stations to take the helium-3 material.

Over recent times there has been an increasing number of global powers and emerging market economies announcing plans to enter the space race, many announcing plans to visit the moon; India, China, Russia, USA to name a few all accelerating plans for visits to outer space and the moon. How will global powers cooperate with such a precious raw material that could answer all of our future energy needs?

Helium-3 will deliver nuclear energy that is clean, safe, carbon-zero and take away the threat of enrichment for nuclear weapons. In 2009 the US government commissioned a document into mining helium-3 and policy options. It is clear in this document that alleviating conflict and discontent with nations was a major concern to the US administration. The report concluded that international space laws fail to establish rules governing mining, ownership and exploration of helium-3. Will profit, politics, power all come before the needs for cooperation and collaboration? Providing affordable clean power for the developed world is key but ensuring developing nations and third world economies are not forced even further into energy poverty. Conflict will come, controversy and disruption, as power-greed nations seek to monopolise our lunar surface.

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Topics: Space