China is winning the race to mine the moon for fusion fuel. Notably, the Chang 5 probe brought back rock samples which could show the moon is rich in Helium-3.
Helium-3, or He-3, is a rare isotope that can ignite deuterium and hydrogen to trigger fusion reactions. For example, Commonwealth Fusion Systems uses He3 in its fusion experiments at MIT.
Helium-3 is one of the most expensive elements on Earth. I estimate one pound of Helium-3 costs $636,636. Furthermore, I estimate one ounce of He-3 could cost $39,789.75. To elaborate, Intpolicydigest estimates 220 pounds of He-3 costs $140 million. If you divide $140 million by 220, you get $636,636. If you divide $636,636 by 16 you get $39,789.75.
Demand for He-3 on Earth could grow because fusion investment is rising. For example, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Peter Thiel are among the billionaires investing in fusion research. Commonwealth Fusion alone claims to have $1.8 billion in funding.
Chinese looking for He-3 on the Moon
The Chang-5 space probe brought 3.82 pounds of lunar soil back to Earth in 2020.
Scientists will analyze the soil to test theory the Moon contains massive deposits of Helium-3, The Wall Street Journal reports. The hope is there are enormous amounts of He-3 just beneath the lunar surface. Notably, the China National Nuclear Corporation, which also sponsors fusion research, finances the lunar soil study.
In the future giant machines could vacuum up He-3 on the moon to fuel fusion reactors on Earth, Joseph Michalski, deputy director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research speculates. However, nobody knows how to mine He-3 on the moon or if it is there.
If the Chinese can get to the Moon first, they could control the Helium-3 supply and make all the money from it. The Chinese and Russian space agencies are planning to build a joint-base on the Moon. However, neither China nor Russia has a rocket capable of hauling cosmonauts to the Moon.
As far as I know, the only rocket capable of taking people to the Moon is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which carries the Dragon space capsules into orbit. SpaceX is an American company.
SpaceX is developing a larger and more powerful vehicle for long-range space travel. Elon Musk calls the Starship. SpaceX’s new Super Heavy rocket will carry the Starship into orbit if Musk’s plans succeed.
Helium-3 Rush to the Moon
If scientists detect He-3 in lunar soil, it could trigger a Helium-3 rush to the moon.
The Helium-3 rush could resemble the oil scrambles of the 20th century when companies and countries raced to discover and develop oil fields. For example, the British and the United States rushed to develop Middle East oil fields.
The difference is that only a few great powers; China, the United States, the European Union, and possibly India, have the resources to reach the moon and mine He-3. I suspect it will cost tens of billions of dollars to develop a He-3 mining program.
Currently, the US is leading that race because of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and NASA’s Artemis program. However, the Chinese have the resources to catch up fast.
An Unnecessary Conflict on the Moon
The sensible strategy for Helium-3 is for the world’s nations to collaborate on a He-3 mining effort. However, I doubt that will happen. There’s a US law that prevents America and China from cooperating in space. Yet the United States cooperates in space with the Russian Federation.
Ironically, the world’s nations, including the US and China, are collaborating on the $22 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). The ITER is a giant fusion reactor under construction in France.
Hence, the world could soon experience the lunacy of a Helium-3 race to the Moon. Sadly, we could easily avoid such insanity with a little sensible international cooperation. Unfortunately, nobody in Washington or Beijing seems willing to take such intelligent steps.
Hopefully, we will not see an unnecessary conflict over Helium-3 on the Moon in this century. Yet we seem to be setting the stage for such a conflict now.