NEEP602 Course Notes (Fall 1997)
Resources from Space

The Significance of 3He

Lecture 28
Professor G. L. Kulcinski

November 5, 1997

If the use of 3He as a fusion fuel is so great, why has it not been done before?

From lecture 27, we have seen that the IEC concept could solve the physics issues facing the "burning" of advanced fusion fuels, but what about 3He resources?

It is worthwhile noting that when burned with 0.67 kg of D:

1 kg 3He = 10 MWe-y of electrical energy

The known present reserves of 3He in the World come from

1.) trace primordial 3He in underground gas fields, and,
2.) the decay of tritium produced in fission reactors.

From Figure 2 it can be seen that only ~ 300-500 kg of 3He could be practically available by the year 2000, mostly from the 3He collected by processing thermonuclear weapons.

Figure 2

On the other hand, this amount of 3He is enough to build and operate all the test facilities that would be needed in the next few decades up to and including a ~ 3-500 MWe fusion power plant or an orbiting 200 MWe power plant. The ultimate problem comes in providing the fuel for a 3He fusion economy.    In that situation, tonnes (not kg) of 3He are required.

Where Can We Get Enough 3He?
  From our previous lectures (particularly #13) we have seen that tonnage quantities of 3He have been identified on the lunar surface. Estimates not put the 3He resource at ~ 1 million tonnes.



How Much Energy is There in Lunar 3He?

The tremendous power density in 3He is illustrated by noting how much it would take to provide all of the electricity in the U. S. in 1996. If the required 3He were liquefied, it could fit in the cargo bay of the current U. S. Shuttle.

It is also important to note that today, the energy content in 1 tonne of 3He is worth ~3 billion dollars (if oil is ~21 $/barrel). Hence one shuttle load of 3He could more than pay for the Apollo program, even in today's dollars.

For the first time in human history, we can now look at the Moon as a major source of future energy. In fact, the Moon contains 10 times more energy in the 3He on its surface than all the economically recoverable fossil fuels on the Earth (Kulcinski, 1992)!

The United States cannot afford to stay out of this race for the energy resources of the Moon.



What Do Others Say About 3He?

Several research groups, governmental administrators, and journalists have made statements about the significance of 3He to our future (White, 1996). A few of these quotes are given below.

The Japanese and Europeans have plans for lunar exploration.

However, the Japanese seem to be more aggressive in their approach.

Since the original paper (Wittenberg, et al., 1986) connecting the Lunar 3He with the Earth's fusion program, programs on this energy souce have sprung up all over the world. In the past 10 years alone, twice as manhy papers have been published with respect to 3He as an energy source than all the papers published on the topic in the previous 50 years (Kulcinski, 1993, White, 1996).

Finally, lunar resources can insure the energy future of the earth and supply the pioneers of the space frontier.


Kulcinski, G. L., Emmert, G. A., Blanchard, J. P., El-Guebaly, L. A., Khater, H. A., Maynard, C. W., Mogahed, E. A., Santarius, J. F., Sawan, M. E., Sviatoslavsky, I. N., Wittenberg, L. J., 1992b, "Safety and Environmental Characteristics of Recent D-3He and DT Tokamak Power Reactors", Fusion Technology, Vol. 21, No. 3, Part 2B, p. 1779.

Kulcinski, G. L., 1993, "History of Research on 3He Fusion", University of Wisconsin WCSAR-TR-AR3-9307-3, p. 9, [Presented at the Second Wisconsin Symposium on Helium-3 and Fusion Power; Proceedings of a Symposium held in Madison, WI, 19-21 July 1993].

White, S. W., 1996, "A Current Bibliography of Helium-3 Research", University of Wisconsin Report UWFDM-1003, January 1996.

Wittenberg, L. J. Santarius, J. F. and Kulcinski, G. L.,1986, "Lunar Source of He-3 for Commercial Fusion Power", Fusion Technology, 10, p.167.

Representative Questions

1.) How much tritium would one have to have to provide the 3He fuel for an annual U. S. Electrical Demand of 500 GWe?

2.) What is the total thermal energy associated with 1,000,000 metric tonnes of 3He burned with D? What is the equivalent amount of barrels of oil?

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