Many scientists believe that retrieving helium3 from the moon could finally generate an unlimited supply of nuclear energy here on Earth without creating radioactive waste.
News of billionaires funding their own space projects has become so commonplace that Infospace founder Naveen Jain’s recently announced target date of 2017 for landing the first of three robot rovers on the moon has received little press attention. Certainly the goal of his Moon Express company—to begin mining a lunar gas called helium3—hardly sounds as profitable as Elon Musk getting a high-profile NASA contract to service the space station or as exciting as Richard Branson’s plan for sub-orbital tourism.
Yet many scientists believe that retrieving helium3 from the moon could finally make it possible to generate an unlimited supply of nuclear energy here on Earth without creating radioactive waste. Unlike enriched uranium, reprocessed plutonium, or thorium, helium3 can power fusion reactors without posing any danger from potential accidents, natural catastrophes such as the 2011 Japan earthquake, terrorist sabotage, or inadequate shielding of spent fuel rods.
Unfortunately, helium3 is a very rare gas on Earth. Our planet’s thick atmosphere and magnetic field block the rays from the sun that carry the element. But as much as 1.1 million metric tons of helium3 are believed to exist in abundance at or near the surface of our airless moon, which has been saturated for billions of years by unfiltered solar winds. Just 40 of those tons—about enough to fill two railroad boxcars—could likely power the entire Earth at our present level of energy consumption for a year.