Little waste and no radiation, enter Helium-3 at $3B per metric ton
Recently Trump signed an executive order which said, “The US does not consider the moon agreement to be an effective or necessary instrument to guide nation states regarding the promotion of commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies,” This repudiates an unratified 1979 Moon Treaty which looked to turn the jurisdiction of celestial bodies over to participating members.
However, none of the countries (USA, Russia and China) with space launching capabilities signed on to this agreement and therefore did not become international law. Indications are that the administration will reach out to countries like Canada, Japan, UAE and European countries to sign what has been called the Artemis Accords. Notably China and Russia have been left out of discussions. Why is this important and who cares?
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To be honest until I read an article by Imelda Cotton in Smallcaps Australia, I did not appreciate the mining potential of the moon. Some have claimed there are many minerals on the moon, including rare earths, but the cost versus value could not support this as a viable source of supply.
Helium-3 is normal Helium with one neutron removed. For those of you who studied first year chemistry you should understand what that is. Helium-3 may become the new target of a space race. This isotope could potentially be used in a nuclear fusion reactor. Currently, nuclear reactors are nuclear fission reactors that produce radioactive waste which has to be safely stored indefinitely. Fusion using Helium-3 has little waste and no radiation.
This material is extremely rare on earth. Only a few kilos per year are produced as a by-product of the maintenance of nuclear weapons. The sun emits Helium-3 but is prevented from reaching Earth because of our atmosphere. However, the moon, with no atmosphere, can absorb the Helium-3 in its soil. It is estimated that the moon could contain over a million metric tons of Helium-3 near the surface. In an article by Christopher Barnatt (ExplainingtheFuture.com) notes that 25 tonnes of Helium-3, the payload of a space shuttle, could power the USA for a year. This makes Helium-3 worth $3B per metric ton. Therefore it is commercially viable as opposed to rare earths, which typically sell for $2-600k per tonne.
Apparently both Russia and China recognize the value of this material and have plans to mine this, however I expect that COVID-19 has changed priorities for most countries. If one is to emerge I would expect it will be China leading the charge unless SpaceX or other private companies can tackle some of the practical issues. These include setting up a base on the moon and mining 0.3M tonnes of lunar soil to produce 25 tonnes of Helium-3. In addition the soil need to be heated to 600 degrees C to capture the Helium-3. Then there is the small matter of getting it back to Earth. I believe this is one option that makes economic sense as opposed to say mining rare earths on the moon or the bottom of our oceans but that is another story.
Alastair Neill is the President of Trinity Management, a consulting company specializing in business development activities in rare earths, specialty metals and start-up of technology-based ... <Read more about Alastair Neill>