Helium-3 crisis today could finance lunar elevator Technology.
|Scooped by Charles F. Radley|
Helium-3 crisis today could easily finance a lunar elevator.
Helium-3 is abundant on the Moon but very rare on Earth
There is a critical shortage of He3 today, due to two factors:
1) increasing demand for neutrons detectors since 2001 for cargo screening at airport and seaports. There is also increasing demand at research facilities.
2) reduced supply due to decommissioning of nuclear warheads in USA and Russia
The Helium-3 Shortage: Supply, Demand, and Options for Congress Dana A. Shea - Specialist in Science and Technology Policy Daniel Morgan - Specialist in Science and Technology Policy December 22, 2010 Congressional Research Service 7-5700 www.crs.gov
He-3 is currently selling at DOE auctions for $2000 per litre. Sales of He3 in 2008 were 80,000 liters. There is reason to think that the market could absorb 100,000 liters per year of He3, which would put potential revenues at $200 million per year. As of 2012 DOE is currently releasing 14,000 liters per year, and producing only 8,000 liters per year. At $2K/l that equals a globla market of $28 million ...if supply is increased there is little doubt that the market will expand.
Regarding future trends of Helium-3 prices I have read various sources references, and I have performed additional research. I suggest you look especially closely at the US government documents from GAO and the CRS. For example,
GAO-11-472 from May 2011,
title: MANAGING CRITICAL ISOTOPES Weaknesses in DOE’s Management of Helium-3 Delayed the Federal Response to a Critical Supply Shortage
Table-3 in this document is a nice summary of Helium-3 price trends. As you can see the price is steadily increasing. The spot price has more than doubled in the last 3 years (2009 though 2011). The stockpiles of He-3 are shrinking rapidly, and there are only a few years of supply left in the current stockpiles, at which point the price could jump by orders of magnitude. In 5 years, I would not be at all surprised if the market price for He3 were $10,000 per litre. Here is the table:
Table 3: Allocated Helium-3 Prices per Liter
Customers ..................................2009 2010 2011
Federal agencies and their grantees $450 $365 $600
Commercial and nonfederal agencies $450 $365 $1,000
cGMP .........................................$600 $485 $720
Source: GAO analysis of information from DOE and Linde.
Alternative terrestrial sources are scarce and non-viable. For example, extracting He3 from natural gas would cost $12,000 per liter.
If this were the only revenue source for a lunar elevator it would be ample to service the debt on $800 million to build it. Payback in just a few years
The commercial amount of He3 needed would be 10,000 liters per year to 100,000 liters per year. He3 density is about 0.1g per liter at NTP, so we need about 1kg to 10 kg of the gas per year. At average concentration about 150,000 tons of regolith per year would need to be processed. About 500 tons per day, 22 tones per hour
Markets consider upside pressures and downside pressures.
Helium-3 is a very unusual commodity, in that it is completely synthetic, and the Helium-3 traded has not been naturally occurring in nature.
We have been feeding off of the nuclear warhead stockpile which has been the source of all the He3 in the world... that warhead stockpile is now mostly gone, so the rate at which we can replenish the He3 stockpile has dropped off a cliff
We are now left with a known finite stockpile of He3 which is shrinking at a known rate.
Unlike most commodities, we know exactly how big the He3 stockpile is, and we can track how it is being consumed.
The stockpile is now down to about 50,000 liters, and the US DOE is presently releasing it at about 14,000 liters per year, and replenishing it with 8,000 liters per year.
Since natural demand has been demonstrated at 80,000 liters per year (2008), DOE is implementing a form of strict rationing, to try and eke out the He3 stockpile as long as possible.
There is a shortfall of 80,000 minus 14,000 liters = 66,000 liters of pent up demand, or to put it another way, the existing supply of He3 can only satisfy 17.5% of world demand.
There is no terrestrial solution to the He3 supply side, so for once the Moon has a real shot at being a solution to a real terrestrial economic problem.
There is a good window of opportunity to develop a lunar He3 mining solution, the window will likely last decades, so force once we have plenty of time and plenty of money. It is an unprecedented market opportunity for lunar development.
According to Harrison Schnmitt in his 2006 book "Return to the Moon", the Mark-II lunar miner of the Wisconsin Uni Fusion Institute, would cost about $1 billion. This Mark-II plant would produce 33 kg of He3 per year. This is several times more than what is needed to service the existing terrestrial He3 market .... presumably we could build a plant to produce 10 kg per year for $500 million.
About lunar elevators:
For a one time capital cost of US$800Million 2012, a lunar elevator can be built today using existing available materials. This first generation lunar elevator will softly deliver an infinite number of payloads to the lunar surface, each weighing 100 kg, and retrieve the same amount of material from the lunar surface. The alternative of using chemical rockets to soft land on the Moon is prohibitively expensive.
The first generation lunar elevator kit weighs 11,000 kg and can be delivered today to the Lunar L1 lagrange libration location, using a single Delta-IV (or Ariane-V) launch. From there the tether is unreeled upwards and downwards. The lower end anchors itself into the lunar soil using robotic penetrators.
The lunar elevator will cheaply transport oxygen from the Moon to Low Earth Orbit where it can refuel tugs to take satellites from LEO to GEO, a significant revenue source. This reduces the cost of launches to GEO by a factor of Eight times.
In the 1980's I was also a big fan of mass drivers for lunar development and met Gerard O'Neill 3 times (RIP).
In the last couple of years it has become apparent to me that a lunar elevator is orders of magnitude cheaper than electromagnetic mass drivers, and offers several additional capabilities which EM mass drivers do not. For example, lunar elevator can soft land payloads on to the lunar surface, an EM mass driver cannot. This is a game changing cost saving capability.
We can continue the process of developing lunar elevators very inexpensively, by building on existing technology demonstration for space tethers.
A recent data point:is the ESA YES2 mission which flew in 2007 ... they deployed a 31.7 km Dyneema tether, the mission cost under 3 million Euros, including student labor ... estimate Eu15 million at commercial prices..... a lunar elevator deployer is the same technology, would need to be scaled up somewhat ... the system design and complexity would be much the same as YES2.
The YES2 leader is confident that a 100 km tether can be deployed using existing spare hardware, at similar (perhaps lower) cost, in about a year.
Liftport estimate $800 million for the first lunar elevator prototype. The cost of the Zylon tether material is $20 million, the rest is deployment and control systems.
Liftport welcome more detailed analysis on the cost ... without funding our analysis has been limited. Liftport suggested to NIAC a study but they declined.
Prior to establishing ISRU technology, a lunar elevator can provide rapid pay back in terms of scientific exploration of the lunar surface more cheaply than chemical rockets.
We are happy to address any comments or questions you might have, within our limited resources.