Monday, January 16, 2006

"Fossil Fuel" of the Future

In a recent post, I wrote about some humorous comments on science made by fifth and sixth graders. Another one I liked was “Many dead animals in the past changed to fossils while others preferred to be oil.” It’s fortunate indeed that those long-dead animals (and plants) were watching out for us that way, because our civilization has been built on the oil and coal they eventually became. Of course all that fossil fuel energy originally came from the Sun, captured in a long process that started with photosynthesis in ancient plants.

It turns out the Sun has been storing up even more energy for us, in the form of helium-3 captured in the Moon’s soil (more properly regolith) from billions of years of solar wind. Earth’s magnetic field protects us from most of those charged particles, but the Moon has accumulated an estimated million metric tons of the stuff (forty metric tons is the energy equivalent of all the power pumped into the US power grid in 2005). All we have to do is go there, collect it, bring it back to Earth, and “burn” it in helium-3 fusion reactors that are in the earliest stages of development. OK, there are a few non-trivial steps to complete there, about thirty years worth unless somebody picks up the pace. “Somebody” could possibly be the U.S. government – or the Chinese.

I had read other things about the promise of helium-3, but today’s Space Review interview with Dr. Gerald Kulcinski (director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin) is the clearest summary I have found. Fascinating reading.

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