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China Looking to Mine the Moon to Solve World's Energy Problems

August 8, 2014

Earth's energy supply is projected to face never-before-seen demands as global population swells to an estimated 9.6 billion by 2050, but fear not, China's fledgling space program might have an answer.

According to the Daily Mail, members of China's space program are interested in mining an isotope from the moon's surface for use in nuclear fusion reactors that could provide clean power to the earth for tens of thousands of years to come.

The isotope, Helium-3, the non-profit Global Security Network notes, is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium ejected by winds from the sun that's found in abundance on the moon's surface, but rarely found on earth. That's because our atmosphere prevents much of HE-3 from reaching earth's surface. Meanwhile, the moon has no atmosphere, allowing HE-3 to collect along the surface of the moon for billions of years to the tune of around 1.2 million tons.

And that much HE-3 could go a long way, according to research from scientists at the University of Wisconsin. A single ton of HE-3 is equal to about 50 million barrels of crude oil and a little more than 44 tons of HE-3 could power the United States for an entire year. All told, the entirety of the moon's HE-3 supply could power the earth for 10,000 years and all but eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

But like all futuristic remedies, there are caveats.

First, as The Express notes, it'd be nearly impossible to ship tons of lunar dust back and forth across the nearly 239,000 mile expanse from earth to the moon. Instead, infrastructure would have to be built on the moon to gather and then convert lunar dust into gaseous form. As the Global Security Network points out, that would require heating the dust to 600 degrees Celsius in order to release the HE-3-rich gas. That gas could then be transported in large quantities back to earth for use as fuel in nuclear fusion reactors.

Only, nuclear fusion reactors aren't quite a thing, yet. Scientists have made leaps and bounds in recent years toward developing a workable nuclear fusion reactor, but haven't reached that point yet. As Omar Hurricane, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and one of the pioneers of recent advancements in nuclear fusion technology explained:

 "This isn't like building a bridge," Hurricane said. "This is an exceedingly hard problem. You're basically trying to produce a star, on a small scale, here on Earth."

Then there's the whole problem of who exactly "owns" the moon. Under the United Nations Outer Space Treaty, signed into force in 1967, no particular nation can stake claim to the moon's resources. However, as the Daily Mail notes, the vernacular of the treaty could be vague enough to allow commercial exploitation of HE-3, valued at $3 billion a metric ton.

Even if international political issues are ironed out, there's still the cost. All told, U.S. scientists estimate that the total cost over two decades to develop fusion reactors, moon-based infrastructure and rockets capable of traveling to and from the Moon would top $20 billion, according to the Daily Mail.

And while China's fledgling space program has no definitive plan to mine HE-3, the allure of a potentially limitless energy source seems too great to resist.

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