China is close to becoming the third country, after the United States and Russia, to land spacecraft on the moon. As a result, the blogosphere has been buzzing with one of the reasons why the Chinese have apparently decided to invest in space exploration: to explore the possibility of the isotope helium-3, rare on Earth but possibly plentiful on the moon, in order to research its viability as a clean and powerful form of energy.
Such potential is a reminder of the movie "Avatar," the premise of which was based on humans traveling long distances across space to exploit valuable natural resources from a planet in order to meet the insatiable needs for humankind.
In the case of Chinese moon exploration, the reason is to test the viability of helium-3 as a perfectly secure form of energy. For years the buzz was that cold fusion could solve Earth’s energy conundrum without the nasty effects of pollution and greenhouse gasses. That hype has long died down, but now helium-3 could be that Holy Grail. The oft-quoted claim bouncing across the Internet suggests that 25 tons of helium-3, when reacted with deuterium, would generate enough electricity to power the United States for one year.
Considering the wars over oil and the challenges that renewables pose, you'd think it would be easy to make the case that we should be hauling lunar rocks from the moon, extracting the helium-3 and solving all of our energy problems. After all, the Chinese are looking into it, so shouldn’t we? One author suggests the U.S. would do it, too, but powerful corporate and political interests are getting in the way.
If it were only that simple.
Considering the enormous economic lift and unrivalled power any country would enjoy if they had a resource like helium-3, the reality is that if this were a viable, cost-effective option, we would have long been sending next-gen and future-gen Apollo spacecraft to the moon by now. Conspiracy theorists who insist the oil companies control everything may dismiss such a logical and even simplistic opinion, but to quote"House of Cards" protagonist Francis Underwood: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”
In other words, the ability to generate the kind of power helium-3 would generate would untie the U.S. from the risks associated with volatile energy prices, weaken our perceived enemies and rivals who supply us much of our energy, and free up money that could be invested in other sectors. The unsurpassed power gained from such a find would also make the contractors involved filthy rich — if it were a viable option.
Yes, helium-3 is abundant on the moon because solar winds have allowed this isotope to gather on the moon’s surface, while Earth’s magnetic field has deflected this potentially valuable energy source away. But researchers suggest the amount of helium-3 on the moon's surface is only 50 parts per billion, which would require millions and millions of moon dust and rocks to be harvested. Such a task would make strip mining on Earth look as tame as building a raised garden bed. And it would require a constant stream of spacecraft, such as the mothballed U.S. Space Shuttle fleet, to fly to and from Earth and the moon with the frequency of planes departing hubs such as London’s Heathrow and Dubai.
Never mind the amount of fuel that would be consumed and carbon emitted in order to transport all that material back to Earth — the cost alone is far too prohibitive for any nation at this point. All eyes were on Russia several years back when a company promised a lunar base by 2015 and to start mining for helium-3 by 2020, but those plans were delayed indefinitely.
Finally, while the scientific community has rallied around the risks of climate change, the same has not occurred over the potential of helium-3. There is hardly any consensus about helium-3’s potential, as only some scientists believe it could have a role in meeting the Earth’s surging energy demand. While it makes great headlines, as helium-3 has achieved in publications like the Daily Mail (which makes much of its coin from fomenting celebrity rivalries between the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Kristen Chenoweth), the chances this isotope can transform the world is about as great as finding all of its molecules that exist on Earth.
The only conspiracy preventing helium-3 from solving our energy needs is one between cost, logistics and science, and for now it only makes for fantastic speculation. The Chinese space program is nowhere near burying the rest of the world just yet.
Image credit: G.H. Revera
Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.