Even though we have yet to design a practical nuclear fusion power plant that can economically use helium 3 as a fuel, does it really represent a clean energy source of the future?
By: Ringo Bones
All of our experimental controlled nuclear fusion power plants use helium 3 as a starting material. Unfortunately, a lot of experimental fusion power plants working on the ignition principle seems to be only able to sustain nuclear fusion for a few fractions of a second while those more ingeniously designed ones based on the working principles of Ballotechnic Superfluid are woefully underfunded, does this make the promised potential of an atomic isotope of a gas currently used to make balloons float called helium 3 be forever be in the far-off future? But even if we managed to design a practical controlled nuclear fusion power plant to use it tomorrow, do we ever know where to find it? But first, here’s what we know so far about helium 3.
As of 2011, even though it is still a laboratory curiosity, helium 3 can already be purchased at a rather steep price of 3,000 US dollars a liter. Ordinary, low-cost helium used for making balloons float are sourced from natural gas wells – primarily from Texas and adjacent states in the United States - where it comprises 1.75 per cent of the gas with 0.5 per cent carbon dioxide mixed in while the rest is methane. Some natural gas wells in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan contain a higher percentage of helium 3 compared to ordinary helium in comparison to other natural gas wells elsewhere on Earth, but most helium 3 on Earth – given its scarcity – primarily came from Cold War era atmospheric Hydrogen Bomb tests a little over 50 years ago before being halted by test ban treaties.
As we just recently found out, the closest abundant – and might be economically viable – store of helium 3 is on our Moon. Almost all of the helium 3 found on the Moon is primarily produced by our Sun and it got there via the solar wind and the occasional coronal mass ejection or two. Sadly as well as fortunately, the Earth’s magnetosphere deflects most of these radioactive helium 3 particles that came from our Sun to land on the Moon instead of increasing everyone’s incidence of cancer here on Earth. Back in July 1969, Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 team set-up the “aluminum foil” experiment on the Moon’s surface. The purpose of which to use the aluminum foil to capture atomic particles thrown off by the solar wind which are otherwise deflected by the Earth’s magnetosphere. Upon bringing back the foil for an extensive lab analysis at NASA, it was found out that the aluminum foil used in the Lunar surface experiment managed to capture a high percentage of helium 3 atoms – as well as atoms of argon and neon caught in the stream of the solar wind.