By Andrea Mancini for Global Risk Insights
The worlds largest energy consumers are deeply aware of the urgency of addressing their energy trilemmas – how to balance energy security, energy equity (access and affordability) and environmental sustainability. Helium 3 might be the answer they are looking for.
Over the last few decades, the world’s energy situation has been dominated by feelings of uncertainty and fear. Tensions loom as global energy demands are expected to increase significantly by 2020, parallel with rapid population growths, particularly in India and China.
Powering economies the size of China by burning massive quantities of fossil fuels or increasingly relying on nuclear power is becoming extensively unsustainable and self-damaging. This is not to mention that oil production is expected to peak in the next decade. Alternative energy sources are becoming much more of a necessity than a mere alternative.
What is Helium-3?
On December 2, 1992, the American Geophysical Union published an article in Science Daily claiming there was an isotope of great value on the Moon: a light, non-radioactive isotope of Helium with two protons and one neutron. The unique atomic structure of Helium-3 makes it possible to use it as fuel for nuclear fusion (the process that powers the sun) to generate vast amounts of electrical power without creating the radioactive byproducts produced in conventional nuclear reactors.
Fusion power is a primary research area of plasma physics, where it is seen as a means of producing vast quantities of clean energy. Scientists confirm Helium-3 will be able to power fusion reactors, which are expected to be developed within the next 40 years.
The abundance and potential of Helium-3 has attracted the competitive interests of countries such as China, Russia, US and India. The US is leading the research. Throughout the United States NASA funds 16 facilities for the commercial development of space. The Center for Space Automation and Robotics department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison was the first to envision the idea of mining Astrofuel from the Moon in 1986.
Experts have estimated that forty tons of liquefied Helium-3 brought from the Moon to the Earth would provide sufficient fuel for fusion reactors to meet the full electrical needs of one quarter of the world for a year. Estimates show 1,100,000 metric tons of Helium-3 on the lunar surface and that 40 tons of Helium-3 is enough to fill the cargo bays of two space shuttles, which would be the equivalent of bringing back to Earth approximately 2 billion barrels of oil.
Based on these estimates, the potential energy of a ton of Helium-3 would be equivalent to 50 million barrels of crude oil. Helium-3 based fusion could drastically reduce global dependence on fossil fuels and help governments meet environmental sustainability goals at a much quicker and more effective rate.
The legal framework surrounding lunar exploration and extraction is complex. On the January 27, 1967 the US, Soviet Union and UK signed the Outer Space Treaty (OST). Having reached 102 parties in 2013, the OST is formally a treaty that governs the principles and activities of states in the exploration of outer space.
The wording of the treaty is ambiguous and leaves room for debate. The OST strictly prohibits countries from exercising territorial sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies. These are considered a common heritage of mankind. The OST does not, however, prohibit resource extraction, leaving lawyers room for re-interpretation.
The main factor to consider is that space exploration is no longer solely the domain of governmental agencies. Private companies are attracting investment to develop regular, reliable and affordable travel to space, stimulated additionally by rewards such as the Google-Lunar X Prize.
Others are actively planning manned missions for lunar mining. A company called Shackleton Energy Co. has ambitions to build space fuel stations and to sell rocket fuel, mined from lunar ice caps in orbit, by 2020.
Lawyers and industry experts are pushing to reform the existing treaty into a new comprehensive piece of legislation.
Commercialization and social impact
In a study submitted to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2006, researchers analyzed the financial viability of Helium-3 harvesting missions. Researchers stated that a good measurement of financial viability is maximum return on investment described as the ratio of the project lifetime net gains vs. total capital investment.
For this analysis the most important parameter is the projected lifetime of the project. Estimates suggest that approximately 1 billion metric tons of Helium-3 would last over 300 years, giving investors plenty of time for major financial breakthroughs.
Given that world population is predicted to reach 12 billion by 2050, the world’s increased standard of living, and increased dependence on oil, fossil fuels are not going to last forever.
The development of Helium-3 would alleviate dependency on fossil fuels, not to mention the non-polluting properties of Helium-3. It could also have a substantial impact on international relations.
If mining legislation is carefully planned and structured on the basis of common benefit, it could potentially soften tensions in the political and economic affairs of competing nations, which are increasingly centered around energy security concerns.