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Fuel of the Future @Helium-3

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

Scientists have been working for over 40 years to create nuclear power from NUCLEAR FUSION rather than NUCLEAR FISSION as FISSION produces a vast cocktail of products with a hugely varied chemical and radiological spectrum, requiring a range of cleanup and defense mechanisms however FUSION is not totally clean and safe but it’s orders of magnitude below fission in worst-case consequences.

THE HELIUM-3

Helium-3 (He3) is a gas that has the potential to be used as fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants.


He-3 is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron (normal He has 2 protons and 2 neutrons). Its hypothetical existence was first proposed in 1934 by an Australian nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant at the University of Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory.


PRODUCTION

3He can be produced by the low-temperature fusion of

H(2) + p → He(3) + γ + 4.98 MeV or

H(2) + 2H → He(3) + n + 3.268 MeV


If the temperature of fusion is lower than that of the helium nuclei to fuse, the reaction produces a high-energy alpha particle that rapidly acquires an electron that produces a stable light helium ion that can be used directly as a source of electricity without producing deadly neutrons.

He(3) can be used in fusion reactions by either of the reactions

H(2) + He(3) → He(4) + p + 18.354 MeV or

He(3) + He(3) → He(4) + 2p+ 12.86 MeV


Helium-3 itself is non-radioactive. Not going into much detail but the lone high-energy by-product, the proton, can be contained using electric and magnetic fields. This proton's momentum energy (produced in the fusion process) will interact with the containing electromagnetic field, leading to the generation of immediate electricity.

The total amount of energy produced in the H(2) + He(3) reaction is 18.4 MeV, which corresponds to some 493 megawatt-hours (4.93×108 Wh) per three grams (one mole) of 3He If the complete quantity of energy could be converted to electrical power with full(100%) efficiency  (a physical impossibility), it would correspond to approximately 30 minutes production of a gigawatt electrical power plant per 3He mole. Thus, a year's production (at 6 grams for each operation hour) would require 52.5 kilograms of helium-3.


THE PROBLEM

There is very, very little helium-3 available on the Earth. Helium-3 is produced as a by-product from the current maintenance of nuclear weapons, which could give a net supply of around 15 Kg a year. However, helium-3 is emitted by the sun in its solar winds. Our atmosphere makes it impossible for any of this helium-3 to reach the earth. However, some researches are saying to have significant supplies on the Moon as there is no such atmosphere there.


As an outcome, it was estimated that on the Moon's surface there are about 1,100,000 metric tons of he-3 down to a depth of just a few meters. This helium-3 could ultimately be obtained by heating the lunar dust to about 600 degrees C before fueling the new generation of nuclear fusion power plants back down on earth.


Subsequently, several governments have indicated their intention to go to the Moon to mine helium-3 as a fuel supply. Within the next two to three decades, such plans can come into effect and will trigger a new Space Race.


There were also arguments for Jupiter's Helium-3 mining, where it is much more abundant – the distances concerned would have to be provided. It would also be a less power-hungry process to extract the molecule from Jupiter.

Apart from China Chang’e-5 missions to bring back the first samples containing the actual prize — fusion-ready helium-3, ISRO's ambitious and complex Chandrayaan-2 mission will propel India to the group of elite nations that landed a lunar craft on the moon successfully.




However, this time(2019) it was not successful due to last-minute connection lost from India's control center.


India's official stand on He-3 is that exploring it or mining the isotope is "outside the scope of the current Moon mission". Union Minister Jitendra Singh made this clear last year(2018).

But many foreign space organizations are still speculating India may use this mission to find out more about He-3.



The subject of mining He-3 on the Moon as a fuel for future clean, safe nuclear power plants is a fascinating one that raises many questions. Some of the questions are highly technical and relate to the involvement of nuclear physics.

Other questions concern the inconsiderable practicalities associated with getting to the Moon, mining and super-heating large quantities of lunar rocks (Space.com have reported a suggestion of about one million tons of lunar soil being needed to be mined and processed for every 70 tonnes of helium-3 yield) and then getting the huge precious cargo back to the Earth.


Not everyone is in agreement that He-3 will produce a safe fusion solution. In an article entitled "Fears over Factoids" in 2007, the theoretical physicist Frank Close famously described the concept as "moonshine", also will it be safe enough to dig other planets for our use. Either way, it seems we will have to be patient to find out the answers.



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