Coal..Petrol.. No.. Its Helium Shortage!!!

18 Dec

There are two kinds of stable helium. You know the first one: It puts lift in birthday balloons and the other is an isotope called helium-3, may not be as familiar. It’s a naturally occurring, but very rare, variant of helium that is missing a neutron. Helium-3 is the fuel for a form of nuclear fusion that, in theory, could provide us with enormous energy.

Gerald Kulcinski, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Fusion Technology Institute, is already halfway there. Kulcinski is in charge of an “inertial electrostatic confinement device,” an experimental low-power reactor that has successfully performed continuous deuterium-helium-3 fusion – a process that produces less waste than the standard deuterium-tritium fusion reaction.

The next step, pure helium-3 fusion (3He-3He) is a long way off, but it’s worth the effort, says Kulcinski. “You’d have a little residual radioactivity when the reactor was running, but none when you turned it off. It would be a nuclear power source without the nuclear waste.”

If we ever achieve it, helium-3 fusion will be the premier rocket fuel for centuries to come. The same lightness that floats CargoLifter’s CL160 will allow helium to provide more power per unit of mass than anything else available. With it, rockets “could get to Mars in a weekend, instead of seven or eight months,” says Marshall Savage, an amateur futurist and the author of The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps.

The problem? We may run out of helium – and therefore helium-3 – before the fusion technology is even developed.

Nearly all of the world’s helium supply is found within a 250-mile radius of Amarillo, Texas (the Helium Capital of the World). A byproduct of billions of years of decay, helium is distilled from natural gas that has accumulated in the presence of radioactive uranium and thorium deposits. If it’s not extracted during the natural gas refining process, helium simply soars off when the gas is burned, unrecoverable.

I think now the Copenhagen Climate Summit has one more thing to worry about.

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