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Source: ZE

In 1934 Australian nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant suggested the hypothetical existence of a radioactive isotope as a result of his first experiments of nuclear fusion. In short, the isotope was the unique structure of two protons and one neutron (in contrast with common helium which has two protons). This radioactive isotope was later discovered in small quantities in the underground and was named “Helium-3”.

Since that time, the application of Helium-3 as a fuel for nuclear fusion has been hypothetical, due to its rarity and the cost associated with harvesting it. However, the idea of using nuclear fusion as the source for energy production has never died out.

In 1985 a group of engineers at the University of Wisconsin analyzed the composition of lunar soil and discovered that it contains high quantities of Helium-3. The possibility of mining for Helium-3 on the moon electrified deep space exploration at the time. Although the exact mechanism of mining and bringing Helium-3 are yet to be determined, it was estimated that an equivalent of a single space shuttle with a load of roughly 25 tons could power the entire United States for a year.

If mining for Helium-3 on the moon is ever actually deemed possible, then one of the many questions that would arise from it would be how the addition of a major new energy resource, such as nuclear fusion, would affect the energy landscape. (Well that, and how it would impact the global altitude of the world’s oceans.)

power_plants_map

Figure 1. The existing Power Plants in the United States of America. Source: U.S. EPA’s eGrid database.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the generation of coal has been declining, while energy generation from natural gas and renewable sources has been increasing. Below is the Power Generation Stack since 2003.

Power Generation Stack

Source: EIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With the coal production declining, would nuclear fusion become the replacement source? And if so, would the operating cost of moon mines, transportation and production produce enough profits to replace the current coal production infrastructure?

While the cost-benefit analysis of mining Helium-3 and using nuclear fusion remains ambiguous, one thing remains clear – the following decades of deep space exploration and new discoveries might expand the horizons of the energy industry as we know it.