Extraterrestrial Helium-3 Supplies
The Moon's surface contains helium-3 at concentrations on the order of 0.01 ppm in sunlit areas, and concentrations as much as five times higher in permanently shadowed regions. A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986, have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith and use the helium-3 for fusion. Because of the low concentrations of helium-3, any mining equipment would need to process extremely large amounts of regolith (over 100 million tons of regolith to obtain one ton of helium 3), and some proposals have suggested that helium-3 extraction be piggybacked onto a larger mining and development operation.
The primary objective of Indian Space Research Organization's first lunar probe called Chandrayaan-I, launched on October 22, 2008, was reported in some sources to be mapping the Moon's surface for helium-3-containing minerals. However, this is debatable; no such objective is mentioned in the project's official list of goals, while at the same time, many of its scientific payloads have noted helium-3-related applications.
Cosmochemist and geochemist Ouyang Ziyuan from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is now in charge of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has already stated on many occasions that one of the main goals of the program would be the mining of helium-3, from which operation "each year three space shuttle missions could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world." which is an extreme overstatement however, as one payload to GTO of current spacecraft designs is less than 4 tonnes. To "bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world", more than one Space Shuttle load (and the processing of 4 million tons of regolith) per week would be necessary.
In January 2006, the Russian space company RKK Energiya announced that it considers lunar helium-3 a potential economic resource to be mined by 2020, if funding can be found.
Mining gas giants for helium-3 has also been proposed. The British Interplanetary Society's hypothetical Project Daedalus interstellar probe design was fueled by helium-3 mines in the atmosphere of Jupiter, for example. Jupiter's high gravity makes this a less energetically favorable operation than extracting helium-3 from the other gas giants of the solar system, however.
Helium-3 Power Generation
A second-generation approach to controlled fusion power involves combining helium-3 (32He) and deuterium (21H). This reaction produces a helium-4 ion (42He) (like an alpha particle, but of different origin) and a high-energy proton (positively charged hydrogen ion) (11p). The most important potential advantage of this fusion reaction for power production as well as other applications lies in its compatibility with the use of electrostatic fields to control fuel ions and the fusion protons. Protons, as positively charged particles, can be converted directly into electricity, through use of solid-state conversion materials as well as other techniques. Potential conversion efficiencies of 70 percent may be possible, as there is no need to convert proton energy to heat in order to drive a turbine-powered electrical generator.
There have been many claims about the capabilities of Helium-3 power plants. According to proponents, fusion power plants operating on deuterium and helium-3 would offer lower capital and operating costs than their competitors due to less technical complexity, higher conversion efficiency, smaller size, the absence of radioactive fuel, no air or water pollution, and only low-level radioactive waste disposal requirements. Recent estimates suggest that about $6 billion in investment capital will be required to develop and construct the first helium-3 fusion power plant. Financial breakeven at today's wholesale electricity prices (5 US cents per kilowatt-hour) would occur after five 1-gigawatt plants were on line, replacing old conventional plants or meeting new demand.
The reality is not so clear-cut. The most advanced fusion programs in the world are inertial confinement fusion (such as National Ignition Facility) and magnetic confinement fusion (such as ITER and other tokamaks). In the case of the former, there is no solid roadmap to power generation. In the case of the latter, commercial power generation is not expected until around 2050. In both cases, the type of fusion discussed is the simplest: D-T fusion. The reason for this is the very low Coulomb barrier for this reaction; for D+He-3, the barrier is much higher, and He-3–He-3 higher still. The immense cost of reactors like ITER and National Ignition Facility are largely due to their immense size, yet to scale up to higher plasma temperatures would require reactors far larger still. The 14.7 MeV proton and 3.6 MeV alpha particle from D–He-3 fusion, plus the higher conversion efficiency, means that more electricity is obtained per kilogram than with D-T fusion (17.6 MeV), but not that much more. As a further downside, the rates of reaction for He-3 fusion reactions are not particularly high, requiring a reactor that is larger still or more reactors to produce the same amount of electricity.
To attempt to work around this problem of massively large power plants that may not even be economical with D-T fusion, let alone the far more challenging D–He-3 fusion, a number of other reactors have been proposed – the Fusor, Polywell, Focus fusion, and many more, though many of these concepts have fundamental problems with achieving a net energy gain, and generally attempt to achieve fusion in thermal disequilibrium, something that could potentially prove impossible, and consequently, these long-shot programs tend to have trouble garnering funding despite their low budgets. Unlike the "big", "hot" fusion systems, however, if such systems were to work, they could scale to the higher barrier "aneutronic" fuels. However, these systems would scale well enough that their proponents tend to promote p-B fusion, which requires no exotic fuels like He-3.
See also: Helium-3
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