A look at the Helium Industry in Russia

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In one decade, Russia has recovered from the abyss of economic depression to become one of the world's strongest economies, primarily due to the increased demand for natural resources such as oil. Because Russia's economy is so heavily dependent on exporting these resources, their vested interest to begin harvesting helium, helium-3 to be exact, may well be a necessity. Once harvested, helium-3 isotopes will literally change the world. Helium-3 is a powerful element that could make fossil fuels become, I'll say, "antiquated." Now underway, this endeavor is so globally mammoth, it could potentially bring us to a new age when it comes to fruition in the next 30 years, and appears Russia may be leading the way.

Helium has two stable isotopes. The first is the one most people think of when they think of helium. It is the one that changes our voices, puts lifts in balloons and keeps blimps floating in the air.

The second stable isotope is helium-3 which is extremely rare in our atmosphere. It is a variant of helium that is missing a neutron created through the process of nuclear fusion.

On earth, it is believed there is about 20 pounds of helium-3, but on the moon, it is overflowing. The sun naturally does the nuclear fusion for us, and the solar winds carry the helium through space until it rests in places such as the moon, Uranus, and other planets. Now, it's up to us to go get it. Russia is one of the few countries that is doing just that.

Beginning this year, construction begins on ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in Cadarache in the South of France. The participants for the reactor are: USA, Russia, The European Union, Japan, The People's Republic of China, India, and The Public of Korea.

The ITER's web site states the programmatic goal of ITER is "to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power for peaceful purposes".

Within their technical goals, helium-3, will be part of the fusion testing at ITER. And, it's possible Russia will be the first country to transport helium-3 back to earth.

RSC Energia has committed to Roscosmos they will develop a transportation system to connect the earth and the moon by 2020.

Here is an overview of what is projected to transpire in the next thirty years:

- The nuclear reactor will be built

-Unmanned space craft will be sent to the moon to gather information

-Manned flights will circle the moon

-Representatives of terrestrial occupations will be sent to the moon (engineers, mechanics, geologists).

- A space station for mining helium-3 will built on the moon.

-Transportation vehicles will be hauling the helium back to earth.

Though Russia is aggressively making progress to start harvesting the moon, they are not the only country chasing this rich element.

In an interview posted by Energia between the weekly magazine Itogi and The President and Designer General of RSC Energia, Nikolai Sevastiyanov, the following was stated:

"US have the same objectives: in the period before 2014 Americans intend to spare no effort to get independent access to space. They officially stated that no foreigners will be allowed to participate in the development of the new transportation system only their own."

In addition to the US efforts, India is scheduled to launch the probe, Chandrayaan-1 in April of this year, and are talking about sending Chandrayaan-2, a surface rover to the moon around 2010-2011. China, Japan, and Germany are also talking about sending their own missions to the moon.

With the cost of this endeavor being so mind-staggering, why would any country want to go it alone? Because the one with most helium-3 wins. The value of helium-3 is so high, the country that brings all the theories to fruition could have the power to bring the rest of the world to it's knees.

Here are some examples of what the potential for helium-3 is and why everyone wants it:

- It's estimated monetary value is three to four billion dollars per ton, and it's estimated the moon has about one million tons of helium-3. The gross revenues for the countries mining and exporting helium-3 will be in the billions per year.

- it's a virtual limitless power source.

- the energy contained in 1 million metric tons of Helium-3, reacted with deuterium, would generate about 20,000 terrawatt-years of thermal energy. A terrawatt-year is one trillion watt-years.

- About the amount of helium-3 it takes to fill a semi truck's trailer is enough to power the United States for one year.

-Helium 3 is non radioactive and burns clean unlike fossil fuels. Problems with global warming will be reduced, possibly reversed over time, by replacing the fuels that accelerate global warming.

So, again, it appears the race for the moon is on. And, this time, there is too much as stake for those left out at the finish line. There is especially too much at stake for Russia. For a country whose economic dependence relies so heavily on exporting resources, it's foreseeable what helium-3 will mean to them.


ESA News
Library of Congress
Jet Thermal Products
Energia, Russia: G8 Must Focus on Energy, Not Just Economy, By Jeff Mason, The Associated Press
Technology Review



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