The Lunar Mining Rush: India Aims for The Moon To Solve Its Energy Deficit

Moon could be used as a base for Helium-3 exploration. Image credits: Europen space agency (ESA)
THE NEW SPACE RACE – IS ISRO DOING THE UNTHINKABLE?

India, with a burgeoning population, is already the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. However, this has not deterred India from attempting to do something no nation has ever done: to mine Helium-3 from the moon.

You read it right. India is after the lunar dust that is rich in the mineral.

During valedictory function of India’s distinguished scientist associated with ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), Sivathanu Pillai stated that mining lunar dust is ISRO’s priority project. This goal is supposed to be met by 2030.

He believes, not only India’s but all world’s energy requirements can be met in full through the acquisition of helium isotope He-3 from the surface of the Moon. 

Mining the lunar dust for helium-3
Mining the lunar dust. Image source: University of Wisconsin-Madison
WHY THIS IS SIGNIFICANT

With the economy expanding rapidly, India’s energy requirements are on the rise. By 2035, it is expected to become second-largest energy consumer with about 18% stake in global energy consumption. Currently, the country heavily relies on fossil fuels (coal being primary resource, accounting for roughly 58% of total fossil fuel use). Due to its limited fossil fuel reserves, greater efforts are being invested in the development of renewable energy sources (including wind and solar power). 

India is currently 10th largest solar energy market in the world.  However, with the addition of 100k MW to its solar power capacity, it can climb up to 5th in the list. Moreover, Nuclear power is also part of its energy expansion focus. Five nuclear power plants are under construction with another 18 to be constructed in the next two decades. This is supposedly going to increase its total energy output from nuclear power to 9% from 4.2%.

As it currently stands, about 53% of India’s power consumption will have to be satisfied through imported fuels by 2030 making any potential energy source viable for further exploration.

FIRST HURDLE

In such a scenario no other exploratory study could be more viable than to mine the moon. While it might seem that the biggest problem right now is getting Helium-3 back to Earth, there’s another perhaps more imminent matter to consider – there’s no fully working nuclear fusion reactor.

Attempts have been made for decades and (some might say limited) success has been achieved yet unlike nuclear fission reactors (the common ones that we hear mentioned in the news now and again) there are no commercially viable fusion reactors yet.

Please do not confuse fusion with fission reactors.

The principle behind these two reactions is diametrically opposite.

NUCLEAR FISSION

Nuclear fission –is energy that is released when two heavy elements break into two smaller, lighter elements by shooting high-speed neutrons at them. This energy is used to boil water which then turns to steam and powers turbines of the nuclear reactor into producing electricity. Of course, this is only a gist and the entire process is much more complicated. The downside of this approach is that there is a lot of waste byproducts which are radioactive.

NUCLEAR FUSION

Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is a process you witness almost every day when you look at the Sun. The Sun fuses lighter elements into heavier ones and releases huge amounts of energy in the process, which is the sunlight. Unfortunately, here on the Earth, we do not have sufficient technology to make this process commercially viable.

Fusion reactors require very precise conditions in order to achieve fusion reaction and it would need to be actively refueled.

Where will all the fuel come from? Moon, perhaps.

WHY HELIUM-3?

Helium isotope He-3 was first hypothesized about by Australian physicist Mark Oliphant while working at Cambridge University Cavendish laboratory in 1934. It was long believed to be radioactive however as we know now it is untrue. Helium-3 is very interesting not only due to its lack of radioactivity but also due to its noble nature.

In conventional fusion, elements most commonly used are deuterium and tritium but this process makes reactor components radioactive. This is where helium 3 comes in. Due to its lack of radioactivity, it is a much better alternative.

Image credits: Deskarati

In theory, it is possible to merge this isotope with itself. The by-product of this reaction is the lone high-energy proton. It can be contained using electric and magnetic fields. The momentum of the proton will interact with the containing electromagnetic field, resulting in direct net electricity generation.

And the energy could be obtained from containing the proton that escapes this reaction.

Unfortunately, that would require even more energy then fusing deuterium with tritium. 

Theoretically, without any energy losses during the process, it would take less than 7 tonnes of Helium-3 to supply 200 million Indian households for a year according to energy expenditures in 2001. More realistic energy production puts this amount to be around 15 to 20 tonnes of Helium-3 per year.

WHERE TO GET THIS MUCH AMOUNT?

On Earth, Helium-3 is believed to trapped in the crust since planet’s formation and is occasionally released into the atmosphere. 

There is a long-held belief that lunar surface has Helium-3 in abundance due to cosmic winds which would have forced it into Moon’s surface.

CAN INDIA DO IT?

India made a successful trip to the moon back in 2008 when its rover spent 312 days exploring the lunar surface making a complete chemical composition map of the surface and 3-dimensional topology. It was also the first country to discover evidence of water on the moon.

Certainly, it was not India’s only space research achievement. It’s Mars mission was a success as well. India’s satellites have been orbiting Earth for decades providing telecommunication for Asian Pacific.

We know that ISRO is capable of, so their prowess is not in question.

However, lunar mining operations is a different type of beast altogether.

HOW TO COLLECT?

If the whole process is fully automated it would still require some human presence, maybe only for maintenance and checkups.  But what if it is not completely automated. Where would these “lunar miners” live?

Also, think about the technology required to detect deposits of Helium-3 (it’s not evenly spread across the Moon’s surface)

These are some of the more basic issues that come to mind (greater minds have probably worked some if not all them out and are working on different issues).

For now, more questions arise than answers. The whole process seems to be decades away.

RACE TO LUNAR MINING

India is not the first country to take interest in Helium-3. Back in 2006 Russian company, RKK Energiya said that with adequate investments it could have mining operations running on the Moon’s surface by 2020. On numerous occasions, Ouyang Ziyuan head of Chinese Lunar Exploration Program talked about Helium-3 mining operations as one of the main goals of its program.  

In conclusion, as it all stands, this kind of operation seems a few breakthroughs away. It’s not impossible but definitely improbable in the near future.

It’s not impossible but definitely improbable in the near future.

 

Also read:

ISRO Creates History: Successfully Launches 104 Satellites In One Go

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