Moon Power: China's Lunar Helium 3 Vision
A crowded, energy insecure, future
According to a 2013 United Nations report, the world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. Of those future earthlings, 1.6 billion will live in India, and 1.3 billion in China. By then, Nigeria’s population is expected to surpass that of the United States. Also, the forty-nine least developed countries are going to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion. In the light of these figures, it is not difficult to understand that humanity is going to face an increasingly acute energy trilemma - how to simultaneously achieve and balance energy security, energy equity (access and affordability) and environmental sustainability - in the coming decades.
China and energy
As the world’s second largest energy consumer, China is committed to develop clean and unconventional power in order to quench its thirst for energy. Beijing is deeply aware of the imperative of addressing the trilemma. In fact, powering an economy the size of China’s, especially the size it will be in three decades, only by burning massive quantities of finite fossil fuels and relying on conventional nuclear power is not an option. Besides making China unsustainably energy insecure and growingly politically unstable, this would eventually result into the country’s environmental, socio-economic and political collapse, and destructively impact the rest of the world. Also, the rampaging competition for fossil fuels in the international arena would generate intense geopolitical frictions, fuel regional tensions and breed armed conflicts that would make the international system savagely Hobbesian and highly flammable. For all these reasons, apart from investing in conventional energy sources, China is also focusing on renewable and unconventional energy, and has made it a strategic priority.
China’s energy policies are in a state of rapid flux, but coal and other fossil fuels are still the source of the vast majority of China’s energy consumption today. Currently, Coal accounts for 67 percent of the energy consumed in the Asian giant, oil is the second largest source (17 percent). This situation cannot be changed overnight and, as a popular Chinese saying reminds us “water from afar cannot put out a fire close at hand” [???????], meaning thata slow remedy cannot meet an urgency. For this reason, the Chinese are pouring substantial resources into and placing their bet also on the most futuristic and elusive of unconventional energies: nuclear fusion. Most fusion research has focused on deuterium and/or tritium (heavy isotopes of hydrogen) as fuel for generating fusion. Deuterium is found in abundance in all water on earth while tritium is not found in nature but can be produced by the neutron bombardment of lithium. However, the nuclear fusion Gordian knot could be untied by shifting to another isotope on the periodic table of elements: helium-3.
Helium-3 is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. Even though this gas is found naturally as a trace component in reservoirs of natural gas and also as a decay product of tritium - one of the elements used in making the hydrogen bomb - there is extremely little helium-3 on our planet. In 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s nuclear chemist Layton J. Wittenberg calculated that the potential helium-3 availability from natural and man-made resources on Earth for scientific experimentation was a mere 161 Kgs. The stockpile of nuclear weapons, the best current terrestrial source of the gas, provides only a supply of 15 kg circa a year.
Nuclear fusion reactors using helium-3 could provide a highly efficient form of nuclear power with virtually no waste and negligible radiation. In the words of Matthew Genge, lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering at the Imperial College in London, “nuclear fusion using Helium-3 would be cleaner, as it doesn't produce any spare neutrons. It should produce vastly more energy than fission reactions without the problem of excessive amounts of radioactive waste.” Moreover, eliminating the use of slightly radioactive tritium in the fusion process, by using deuterium and helium-3 for fuel, also has the benefit of simplifying the engineering to meet radiation standards.
Rare under Heaven, abundant in Heaven
Indeed, Helium-3 is really rare ‘under Heaven’. How about ‘in Heaven’? Actually, the Sun - like all stars - continuously emits helium-3 within its solar wind, which consists largely of ionized hydrogen and ionized helium. The reason why Helium 3 is so rare on the Earth is that the terrestrial atmosphere and magnetic field prevent any of the solar helium-3 from arriving on our planet. However, as the Moon does not have an atmosphere, there is nothing to stop helium-3 arriving on the surface of our satellite and being absorbed by the lunar soil. Given that The Moon has been bombarded for billions of years by solar wind, helium-3 is available in the dust of the lunar surface. It has been calculated that there are about 1,100,000 metric tonnes of helium-3 on the lunar surface down to a depth of a few metres (since the regolith - i.e. the lunar soil - has been stirred up by collisions with meteorites).
Helium-3 could potentially be extracted by heating the lunar dust to around 600 degrees C, before bringing it back to the Earth to fuel a new generation of nuclear fusion power plants. Professor Gerald Kulcinski, Director of the Fusion Technology Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison, maintains that about 40 tonnes of helium-3 - which equate to two fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay’s worth - could power the United States for a year at the current rate of energy consumption, without causing smog, acid rain and radioactive waste. This would require mining an areas the size of Washington, D.C. Besides, several other valuable materials - such as oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide and dioxide - will be produced in the course of recovering the helium-3. It comes as no surprise, then, that the gas has a potential economic value in the order of US$ 1bn to 3bn a tonne, making it the only thing remotely economically viable to consider mining from the Moon given current and likely-near-future space travel technologies and capabilities.
A team of University of Wisconsin scientists has calculated that if the entire lunar surface were mined, and all of the helium-3 used for fusion fuel on Earth, it could meet world energy demand for over 10,000 years. In addition, given the estimated potential energy of a ton of helium-3 (the equivalent of about 50 million barrels of crude oil), helium-3 fuelled fusion could free the world from fossil fuel dependency, and is likely to increase mankind's productivity by orders of magnitude. But to supply the planet with fusion power for centuries, humanity has first to return to the Moon. To date only China has embarked on a long-term endeavour to achieve such an ambitious goal, having established a satellite-based lunar exploration program called the Chang'e Project (Chang’e is a fairy living on the moon in a Chinese legend) in 2004. The question is: why China?
As Professor Ouyang Ziyuan (????) - the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program - recently said, “Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country’s comprehensive national power. It is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people’s cohesion.” Plus, the Moon is “so rich” in helium-3, that this could “solve humanity’s energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.” In the light of the statements above, it is clear that Beijing’s lunar program represents a triple-win venture. Internationally, lunar expeditions “will increase China’s political influence in the world.” Domestically, ‘conquering the Moon’ would bolster the consensus for the political leadership and prop up Chinese national pride. Thirdly, on the energy security side, tapping into the Moon has the potential to make China not only energy self-sufficient and secure, but also turn the Chinese into the ‘helium-3 Arabs’ of the 21st century, especially in case they get to enjoy the position of monopolists. China would then become not only an energy superpower able to fix its social and environmental problems, but also the center of a global helium-3 hydraulic empire. According to British space scientist Richard Holdaway, China could have astronauts treading on the Moon by 2025.
A sense of urgency
In China, the ‘pursuit of lunar resources’ theme has then been combined with a ‘geopolitical competition’ discourse conveying a sense of urgency. “If China doesn’t explore the moon, we will have no say in international lunar exploration and can’t safeguard our proper rights and interests,” Professor Ouyang declared in 2010, hinting that progress in the lunar program would confer an edge to China if and when the extraction of the Moon’s riches turns political. The 15 December 2013 edition of the Beijing Youth Daily argued that “China can obtain a certificate to sharing lunar interests only by carrying out exploration and gaining actual results.” It also contended that “how to protect China’s interest in outer space has become an inevitable question.” Dean Cheng, an expert on China's space program at the Heritage Foundation, got the message clear. “Once you start mining, and even before, questions arise as to ownership, as to profit-sharing (if any), as to who has the ability to establish and enforce claims in space,” he said. “A long-term presence in space will give China political capital.” Thirdly, the lunar program has been presented to policy makers and the general public as a cost effective investment.
According to experts in the US, the total estimated cost for fusion development, rocket development and starting lunar operations would be about US$15-20 billion over two decades. By comparison, another big nuclear fusion project (on Earth), the International Thermonuclear Reactor Project (ITER) has an estimated total cost of now €15 billion (US$20.5 billion), and going to the Moon to mine helium-3 would cost “about the same as was required for the 1970s Trans Alaska Pipeline.” Actually, US$ 15-20 billion does not appear to be an excessive financial commitment for a country which is to spend US$ 1.7 trillion between 2011-2015 - in the form of investment, assistance for state-owned enterprises, and bank loans - for a plan aiming at covering 11.4 percent of China’s energy needs by 2015, and 15 percent by 2020, from non-fossil energy.
Two additional charms
Finally, the seductiveness of China’s lunar vision has been enhanced with two additional charms: China’s technological advancement and solar system exploration. As for the first, Ouyang Ziyuan’s speeches often mention the achievements of the U.S. Apollo program (1963-1972) in order to illustrate the transformational characteristics of any lunar project. The Chinese scientist reminds his audiences that Washington spent US$ 25.4 billion on the Moon’s exploration at that time, which has thus far yielded an output worth fourteen times the original investment, leading to the birth of several new hi-tech industries and technologies such as the rocket, radar, radio guidance and so on, which were then put into civil use. The implication is that China’s Moon exploration and colonization are going to be the catalyst for revolutionary technological progress that can transform the country’s entire industrial landscape and bring a galaxy of economic and social benefits.
Helium-3: the big prize
However, helium-3 remains the biggest gem on the selenitic crown. If it is postulated that the commercial value of helium-3 will be US$3 billion/ton, and defensively estimated that there are 1 million tonnes of the precious gas trapped in the regolith, then the whole stock of lunar helium-3 would be worth an astonishing three quadrillion dollars. That is more than enough to cover for the costs and risks of extracting and shipping it back to Earth. Finally, it should be kept in mind that while rocket fuels and consumables now cost an average of $20,000 per pound to lift off Earth, resources could instead be carried off the Moon much more economically. Given that the lunar gravitational pull is inferior to the Earth’s, 83.3% (or 5/6) less to be exact, transporting material from the moon requires just 1/14th to 1/20th of the fuel needed to lift material up from the terrestrial surface.
Financial considerations apart, helium-3 would be crucial for what perhaps is the most ambitious goal of China’s lunar program: setting up a lunar base and using the Moon as a stepping-stone for space exploration. In order turn the Moon into an operational headquarters for scientific experimentation and further exploration of the solar system, a lunar base should be established first. Helium-3 would be crucial for achieving that. In fact, the immediately available by-products of helium-3 production include hydrogen, water, and compounds of nitrogen and carbon. Oxygen can be easily produced by electrolysis of water. Thus, by mining Helium-3 Moon settlers would be able to obtain the air and water they would need to make lunar colonization sustainable. In essence, extracting helium-3 produces the resources we need to gather more of it. Lunar helium-3 could also become the premier rocket fuel of the future, turning the Moon into the launching pad or a refueling service station for space-bound missions.
When asked if the idea of a Chinese lunar base extracting minerals was remotely plausible, Professor Holdaway replied: “It is perfectly plausible from the technical point of view, absolutely plausible from the finance point of view because they have great buying power.” Buying power will be certainly needed, given that a 2009 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that a four-person research station on the lunar surface would cost US$35 billion to build and US$7.35 billion per year to operate.
If China wins the ‘race for the Moon’ and establishes a man-tended outpost conducting helium-3 mining operations, it would create a scenario similar that of the 2009 movie Moon. In that motion picture, a private company called Lunar Industries has built a mining base on the Moon and enjoys a helium-3 extraction and shipping monopoly - the same kind of monopoly that in the past created the fortunes of ventures like the East India Companies. Unlike that fictional universe, in the case of a Chinese lunar base the monopoly would be held by a state. The ramifications and consequences of such a scenario would be ‘cosmic’. First, “China is what international relations scholars call a ‘revisionist power,’ seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs.” Thus, establishing an automated or manned helium-3 operation on the Moon would be a spectacular statement of grandeur. Secondly, due to the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels on Earth, Beijing would be in a position to gradually build a helium-3 hydraulic empire in which it would control the supply of the precious gas, and become the only energy superpower. The making of such an empire would be most likely met with resistance. Plausibly, the prospect of China’s energy supremacy, which would undoubtedly transubstantiate into pervasive geopolitical influence, would cause geopolitical tension, agglutinate anti-Chinese alliances, and prompt the other space-faring nations - in primis the US - to rush to the Moon to break the Dragon’s monopoly.
Game of Moons
Signally, international law would be neither an impassable hurdle nor an effective deterrent. Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty asserts common ownership over everything in the universe beyond the Earth and requires all countries to share in the benefits of space, its article 17 permits signatory states to withdraw from the treaty with only a year's notice. Unilateral withdrawal by one of the major spacefaring powers would undermine the existing international legal regime in space, prompting the other players to secure a piece of the pie in the sky for themselves. This would start a period of colonialism reminiscent of that in 19th century. Having established a permanent manned lunar base, China would be able to substantiate its claim by satisfying an important criterion for sovereignty: the wishes of the inhabitants. Also, claims over lunar areas beyond China’s ‘red side of the Moon’ by other powers would legitimize Beijing’s acquisition of its new selenitic dominions (where Chinese sovereignty would provide regulations and protection for private investors to operate). Once in control of vast helium-3 fields, China could even astutely play ‘game of Moons’ by facilitating the settlement and encouraging the territorial claims of non-hostile or friendly powers - for example other BRICS countries - in order to contain Western expansion and access to helium-3 on the lunar surface.
The future is open
However this ‘game of Moons’ scenario is not an anticipation of an inescapable future. On the contrary, lunar exploration and resources development can be international cooperation synergizers and confidence building catalysts. Consistently, the Beijing Declaration, issued at the 2008 Global Space Development Summit in Beijing, calls for international cooperation “in all the applicative fields of space […] as the world enters a challenging period characterized by globalization, dramatic population growth, serious environmental concerns and scarcity of resources.” By 2050 there will be a dire paucity of all the economically recoverable fossil fuels (there would still be plenty of coal, but can the humankind afford to put up with the greenhouse gases?). “Also, all alternative sources of energy, like water power, solar power, tidal power, wind power, geothermal power, and wood will not be sufficient to supply more than 10 percent of the energy which will be needed by [the billions of people] that will be on earth at that time. We will be out of energy and forced to seek a new source,” predicted engineer and inventor Wilson Greatbatch at the turn of the millennium. The Moon can tend the Earth its energy salvation. The helium-3 trapped into the lunar soil offers humanity about ten times the energy that could be obtained from mining all the fossil fuels on Earth, without causing apocalyptic pollution.
Working together would make humanity’s pursuit of helium-3 power, quicker, cheaper and more efficient. Starting a cooperative effort, inclusive of China and the US, for lunar exploration would, first of all, require each participant a change of mindset as well as adopting an approach based on the four principles indicated by the Beijing Declaration: mutual benefit, transparency, reciprocity, and cost sharing. Actually, the same document identifies the development of a lunar base as the ideal next project for international collaboration on space exploration. Creative politics and diplomacy would then play a crucial role in ensuring good governance and fair dividends to all parties. New legal regimes for exploiting helium-3 and other lunar resources could be designed and approved. A new international regime, organization or enterprise for the cooperative development and terrestrial fusion of lunar helium-3 may be needed. Many diverse solutions will be possible as long as a sense of common destiny will be shared by the moon-settling nations. The race for making available a safe, clean and revolutionary source of energy to all human beings should not have any loser, only winners. Thus, civilizational or national egoisms should be left back on Earth. Helium-3 power is not meant to be the flame casting deep shadows over a new Dark Age, but the glorious light of a global renaissance.