Helium-3 – China Intends To Strip Mine The Moon To Solve World’s Energy Problems

Scott Falkner - Author

Jan. 14 2015, Updated 12:36 p.m. ET

China intends to mine the rare isotope, Helium-3 from the moon in an attempt to solve the world’s energy crisis.

According to Chinese State Media, China’s lunar orbiter has successfully locked into orbit around the moon. The spacecraft, dubbed the Chang’e 5, will next perform a soft landing on the surface of the moon. It’s mission is to collect four pounds of rock and soil samples before returning to Earth.

China first landed a robotic lander on the moon on December 14, 2013, when its Chang’e 3 spacecraft’s Yutu rover touched down successfully. When it did, Yutu’s arrival marked the first soft-landing on the satellite by a manmade spacecraft in over 37 years.

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China’s next lunar step? China intends to build a mine on the moon to harvest Helium-3, a rare helium isotope. Scientists believe that mining Helium-3 from the moon may be the energy miracle the world has been waiting for. According to Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, the moon is rich with Helium-3. Ziyuan says that mining the moon for the isotope could solve the world’s energy problems by providing renewable energy through nuclear fusion.

Whereas nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms to create energy, nuclear fusion is fusing two or more lighter atoms into a larger one to achieve a similar effect. Though nuclear fission doesn’t normally occur in nature, nuclear fusion occurs naturally in stars. The energy produced via nuclear fusion is three to four times greater than the energy produced by nuclear fission.

Matthew Genge, a scientist and lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering at the Imperial College in London, says that utilizing Helium-3 allows nuclear fusion to produce a tremendous amount of energy without the excess of radioactive waste produced in nuclear fission reactions. Nuclear fusion does not produce any extra neutrons. The interesting thing is that it wouldn’t take much Helium-3 to get the job done.

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Scientists say that a mere 40 tons of Helium-3 harvested from the moon, (an amount that could be carried in the cargo bays of two space shuttles), could power the entire United States for over one year at its current energy consumption.

Helium-3 is rare on Earth because the atmosphere and magnetic field which surround the planet prevent any Helium 3 from landing on the surface. The Earth’s moon, however, contains vast quantities of the isotope that have been dumped there by solar winds.

China’s proclamation that it will provide enough Helium-3 to power the Earth for the next 10,000 years was met with curious optimism, a quantifier of doubt, and more than a little fear. Some wonder if China is the only country to mine the Moon, would that make for a Helium-3 monopoly?

China is the only one going to the moon these days, however. The ESA has been focused on comets. NASA’s shuttle fleet has been shelved, and there’s little on their drawing board beyond robotic and manned missions to Mars later this century, if ever.

[Image via NSS.org, Wikimedia]


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