How to find and access energy needed to keep Earthly civilization going and growing is an old problem. But the solution to that problem may not be on the Earth.
Modern, industrial civilisation has provided a lifestyle for ordinary people that Kings and Emperors in previous eras would have envied. The growth of technology has contributed appliances that do the work for each person that previously was done by dozens of servants. People have access to mobility, comfort, entertainment, and information undreamed of just a short time ago in human history.
The problem is that all of those vacuum cleaners, plasma TVs, home computers, and automobiles need the energy to make them work. The advance of technology means more devices requiring more power. The growth of population means more people demanding those devices requiring more energy. And, to top everything off, regions of the world emerging from third world status—India and China being prime examples—create an even higher demand for energy.
Nearly every source of energy on Earth presents problems. The burning of oil and coal causes pollution, including the sort that some point to as the cause of global warming. Potential new sources of oil tend to be in places that are either politically unstable, such as the Middle East, or in environmentally controversial areas, such as Alaska or offshore from California or Florida. Nuclear power, while safer than in previous years, is still politically contentious and still produces radioactive waste that is difficult to dispose of. Renewable sources, such as ground-based solar and wind, cannot generate enough energy to keep pace with the growing demands of human civilization.
Is the world condemned to a Hobson’s choice of rationing energy or else accepting the dangers and tradeoffs of exploiting more and more of the Earth’s energy sources? Perhaps not. The answer may well lay about a quarter of a million miles away, at a place people can see on most clear nights. Indeed, the Earth’s Moon may be the Persian Gulf of the later 21st Century, if we have the will to make use of what it has to offer.
Helium 3 Fusion
Over billions of years, the solar wind has deposited an isotope called Helium 3 onto the lunar surface. Helium 3 is not found in nature on the Earth, though we have produced the trace amounts in nuclear experiments. Helium 3, however, may be the fuel which powers the future, when fusion power becomes practical
While the promise of fusion energy remains elusive, it has the potential of unlocking a source of power that could sustain civilisation for thousands of years. One problem is that some forms of fusion, using deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) release eighty per cent of its energy in the form of radioactive neutrons, significantly increasing cost and safety issues for any potential commercial application.
Fusion using helium 3, on the other hand, produces little or no radioactive byproducts. The closest place where we can find helium 3 in any quantity is the surface of the Moon, where it is estimated a million tons of the isotope exists, depositing over billions of years by the solar wind. Helium 3 could be mined from the Moon and delivered to Earth where just a few tons of the isotope could supply all the power needs of the United States for a year, without pollution
Research into technology to not only develop fusion power plants using helium 3 as fuel but to also mine helium 3 from the lunar surface is currently being conducted by the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the current pace of research, helium 3 fusion power is still decades away, though scientists suggest that they might short the time significantly given more resources and attention.
Space-Based Solar Power
Dr David Criswell at the University of Houston at Clear Lake thinks he has a better idea. Why mess around with developing the technology to build fusion power plants, when there is already a fusion power plant readily available? That fusion power plant is called the Sun. The problem is how to tap into the energy it produces.
Space solar power is an old concept, first developed by Peter Glasser at Arthur Little in the late 1960s. The idea is that substantial solar collectors, located in orbit around the Earth or on the lunar surface, would collect the flood of energy flowing from the Sun and beam it to the Earth via microwaves. On Earth, the microwaves would be converted into electricity and fed into the power grid. We also see space-based solar energy as a means of powering space-based industries and mining operations.
In the early seventies, Dr Gerard O’Neill of Princeton suggested that we could decrease the cost of building these “powersats” by using off-world resources, from the Moon or Earth-approaching asteroids. A more recent study, conducted by the National Research Council, suggests that advances in solar cell efficiency, robotics, composite materials, and digital control systems, as well as successful tests of wireless transmission technologies, make space solar power even more feasible.
Dr Criswell believes that he has a more elegant idea. Instead of building considerable powersats in high Earth orbit at great expense, why not make solar collectors on the lunar surface? Criswell envisioned robot miners/factories travelling the lunar surface, mining it for silicon, and creating solar cells and laying them out on the Moon for a fraction of the cost of building space-based powersats. We would beam the power to Earth, via small, relay stations in orbit.
The advantage over Helium 3 fusion is that the technology to build this greatest of all power grids exists today. Criswell estimates that the lunar surface captures 13 trillion terawatts of energy from the sun. Catching even one per cent of this energy would provide prosperity for ten billion people on the Earth.
The Moon and the Hydrogen Economy
A recent book Moon Rush, written by aerospace engineer Dennis Wingo describes, a third way the Moon, as well as other celestial bodies such as Earth-approaching asteroids, could be the source of a solution to Earth’s energy problems. Wingo makes the case that billions of years of impacts by nickel-iron asteroids have deposited large quantities of platinum group metals on the Moon. The reason this fact is essential is that these kinds of metals are a critical component in hydrogen fuel cells.
Fuel cells have the potential to provide power for everything from automobiles to office buildings and small factories, with the only byproduct being water vapor. In order to create this chemical reaction, platinum is needed as a catalyst.
In his book, Wingo suggests that there are not enough reserves of platinum group metals on the Earth to support a hydrogen economy run by fuel cells. Also, the refining of platinum group metals on Earth generates a considerable amount of toxic waste. Wingo suggests that platinum group metals mined and refined on the Moon, or Earth-approaching asteroids, could make up the difference and jump-start a hydrogen economy on Earth.
As the United States and other countries contemplate sending people back to the Moon for the first time in decades, a debate has arisen over whether it is worth the cost. Science and exploration are undoubtedly essential things, but if the Moon is the source of the solution to Earth’s energy problem, then going back to the Moon might be worth any cost. Just as earlier explorers set forth across trackless oceans for “God, glory, and gold”, future explorers may set forth on an even more trackless, airless ocean for “Energy, commerce, and science.” It is a bright future, filled with the potential for prosperity and high adventure.