Astrofuel—Energy Source of the Future
Air Cmde (Dr.)C.N. Ghosh, Senior Fellow, IDSA
Currently India’s oil consumption is around 84 million tonnes (m.t) per year as against the production of 33 m.t. India’s domestic production will touch 37 m.t by the end of the Ninth Plan period. On the other hand, a sustained GDP growth of 6 per cent will enhance the oil consumption to the tune of 275 m.t by the year 2020. The Times of India wrote on August 23 that India is talking to international partners to establish a gas pipeline through Pakistan from Iran despite the present thorny Indo-Pak relations. How India is to break the ice of the present political impasse with an intransigent Pakistan is not known. A long distant hope of generation of goodwill and a desperate need for a secure energy source may have driven Indian policy makers to make such a move. But a comparatively green political scientist would come to a better conclusion. This step is nothing but anxiety driven. The concern for energy security looms large over the Indian psyche. Natural gas reserves of India are placed at 660 billion cubic meters (bcm). India is not an importer of natural gas at present but it will start soon. By 2002 India is expected to import about 2.2 billion cubic meters of natural gas which would increase to 25.5 bcm by 2010.1 The Indian desire for a pipeline through Pakistan is understandable.
India is on a better wicket with coal production, which touched a figure of 288.65 million tonnes by 1996-97. But burning coal has its own limitations. Environmental hazards like acid rain, green house effect and other health hazards will curtail its utilisation.
India also has uranium reserves, which could generate power to the tune of 10,000 MW. Currently only 2.6 percent of India’s power consumption is met by nuclear energy.2
The Indian population has already crossed the magical figure of a billion and is growing at a steady rate. The energy sources on the other hand have been reducing at a much greater pace. The decline is alarming. The reserves with mother India would not sustain her teeming billions. Indian electricity generation capacity by 2011-12 should be around 318,000 MW.3 This is 3.7 times the installed capacity of 85,019 MW at the end of the 8th Plan in 1996-97. The projected growth of atomic power is to the tune of 5105 MW in 2011-12 as against the present capacity of 3105 MW.4 The entire production of atomic power is based on fusion reactors in association with its waste management hazards. A country like India will find it difficult to manage the nuclear waste. While discussing nuclear waste management W Hafele commented that
"If the fission products are solidified significantly in a reprocessing plant, then the volume required to store the waste for the next 30 years is only 1,000 cubic meters. This calculation assumes that gradually up to 50 to 60 per cent of the energy will be supplied by fission reactors. The waste must be stored under special conditions for five to six years to enable the heat to dissipate. It may then be included in glass or other chemical compound forms which are both stable and sufficiently heat conductive. The most promising long-term method of disposal is in salt mines. One of the major concerns in storing the radioactive waste is that it does not contaminate water either ground water or ocean."5
A Pugwash Monograph (Page 256-257)
The entire picture may not look very healthy. The environmental hazards related to power generation had been commented upon fairly severely in The Times of India in its issue of August 30, 2000, wherein Proful Bidwai wrote that,
"….. the distinction of having six of world’s 10 dirtiest nuclear reactors. It won’t do to deny India’s poor safety culture and disaster proneness. It would be disastrous to let hubris drive us toward nuclear catastrophe."6
Now the question arises can India be self-sufficient in energy generation?. The answer will be in the negative. The Planning Commission has accepted this reality and placed on record, their estimated gap between demand and supply. Improving energy efficiencies is costly and will not keep up with the energy demand of India,
"Environmental problems associated with burning coal will put downward pressure on coal consumption. Long lead time, political sensitivities on the international stage and difficulties in attracting the necessary foreign investment will complicate India’s ambitious plans to expand the nuclear power sector."7
Juli A. Macdonald and S. Enders Wimbush,
Strategic Analysis (August 1999)
Not Too Bright a Picture for Asia
Oil demand growth in Asia may be the fastest than any other region. It is expected that demand this year will be around 13.3 million barrels a day (mb/d) almost touching West Europe’s demand of 14.3 mb/d. Asian demand will rise to 28.6 mb/d which is greater than the total US consumption of 24.4 mb/d. By 2020, China’s oil consumption is expected to be 9.5 mb/d.8
Demand and supply of natural gas in Asia, will grow at a much faster rate and will take the seat of primary source of energy over the next two decades. This consumption is expected to grow by more than 7 per cent till 2020. From 4.7 trillion cubic feet in 1995 it will rise to 27.7 trillion cubic feet. In comparison, consumption of gas will grow at a much slower pace in Australia, Japan and New Zealand at 1.6 percent a year (from 3.1 trillion cubic feet will go upto 4.6 trillion cubic feet by 2020).9 This would be the preferred fuel in Asia because of its availability, cost stability and environment friendliness. Natural gas could reduce the dependence of Asian countries on Persian Gulf supplies.
Coal consumption in Asia is the largest in the world and that at only 40 per cent level of the world’s consumption. And it is expected that Asia’s share of coal consumption will rise to a level of about 60 per cent by the year 2020. In terms of tonnage this will be about 5.2 billion tons. Asia should brace itself for the associated environmental problems due to such heavy burning of coal.
It is also expected that nuclear power growth in Asia would rise from 85.5 to 129.4 GW by 2020,10 but not without its corresponding waste management hazards. All such statistics only point out to Asia’s dependence on energy from external sources. The strategic reality is clear as commented by Juli Mcdonald and Wimbush.11 The Middle East will become more important. Or should it be?
World Energy Resources. Presently the world’s average annual energy consumption is 71,530 barrels per day as against the total world reserve of about 1,034,668,270 thousand barrels.12 Therefore a conservative estimate indicates that the world fossil fuel will be exhausted by 39 years from now. And when the population reaches the 10 billion mark the consumption will be to the tune of about 100 to 150 billion barrels of oil per year. The economically recoverable fuels left on Earth are equivalent in energy content to only 5000-7500 billion barrels.13 And by the midst of this century, fossil fuel will not be in a position to sustain human civilisation. Mankind will have to look for new sources of energy based on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass.
Nuclear fusion is the other source of energy, but for its present problem of production of greater number of neutrons, which damage the reactor itself and produce radioactive wastes. On the other hand, a fusion reaction carried through Helium 3 releases only 1 per cent of its energy in the form of neutrons. As a result the design factor of this type of reactors becomes easy and reduces radioactivity to a very low level. It may be mentioned here that Astrofuel would be the most efficient source of energy because 99 per cent of the energy can be released as charged particles. This energy can be converted into electricity with greater amount of efficiency. The level of radioactivity is so low that a complete meltdown of the reactor will not spread the much dreaded radioactive particles.14 Or at the end of the useful life of the reactor, this could be dismantled and disposed like any other ordinary medical instruments.
An Alternate Source
For the first time in 1986 the Wisconsin Centre for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conceived the idea of mining and using Astrofuel from the Moon.15 This centre coined the word Astrofuel. The center, one of the 16 NASA centers for the Commercial Development of Space is well positioned to manage this project because of the university’s already existing fusion, space and life support research programme. Researchers here do not have any doubt that 21st century power plants would wear a different look from their predecessors of yesteryear. They are more or less sure that Helium3 (He3) an isotope of Helium which has one less neutron than Helium, available in plenty on the surface of the Moon could replace fossil fuel. The world population touching a figure of almost 10 billion would find it impossible to substitute the energy need from any source other than Helium3. This is a rare quantity on earth but available in large quantities on the Moon.16 One ton of this Astrofuel could supply the electrical needs of a city of 10 million people when combined in a fusion reactor with a form of hydrogen extracted from water. Therefore it will not be very difficult to understand the impact Astrofuel can have on world energy supplies. The extremely high power density means that only 28 tons of Astrofuel, approximately the pay load of current U.S Space Shuttle could supply the entire electrical demand of the US for an year. Even if the selling price is set for $1 billion a ton, the energy cost of this fuel would be equivalent to oil at only $7 a barrel ( University estimates).17
In early 1970 for the first time the astronauts discovered quantities of Helium3 on the lunar surface.18 It originated from solar wind and got deposited over thousands of years. Therefore the Moon could be the most important source of energy in the 21st century. Vastly more energy can be supplied by Astrofuel than by oil from the Persian Gulf. The nation that develops the technology to retrieve Astrofuel will be in a commanding economic and strategic position in this century. Astrofuel will provide the basis for:-
Economic and inherent safe fusion reactors to supply electricity for the world.
A nuclear fuel cycle with no radioactive isotopes.
Energy converted directly to electricity with much greater efficiency.
Completely and inherently safe reactor operation. In the event of the worst accident no meltdown could take place.
Radioactivity of the reactor is so low that the facility can be disassembled at the end of its life and disposed off as low level waste.
It is also interesting to note that human existence on the Moon and in space can be sustained by the by-products of Astrofuel. The process of mining on the Moon will produce certain quantities of:19
These elements and compounds are vital to human existence in space. They will permit growth of food, establishment of contained atmosphere and water supply. The Indian scientific community and the energy researchers should take note of these developments. We may not have much of a choice than to accept the fact that US now has the overall lead. Helium 3. As has been mentioned earlier, Helium3 is an isotope of helium, which has one neutron less than Helium.20 Some quantity of He3 is available on earth. But this quantity is not sufficient to be exploitable commercially. The total US strategic reserve is not greater than 29 kgs and another 187 kgs are mixed up with the natural gas. The Moon has an estimated reserve of 1,100,000 metric tonnes of He3 which has been deposited by the solar wind for millions of years.
Fig 1. Specifications of Helium3
Chemical Symbol 3 He
DOT Classification 7440-59-7
Substance Identification 1046
UN Number (Compressed Gas) UN 1046, Class 2.2
Major Hazards Nonflammable gas
Toxicity (TLV) None Established
Flammability Range (in air) None
Data From: Rhombic Corporation – Helium 3 <www.rhombic.com/helium3.html>
Fig 2. Producers Purity Specification of Helium3
Typical Spectra Grade Refrigeration
Contaminants Chemical Purity** 99.999% Grade*
Isotopic Enrichment* 99.99% 99.9%
Argon Ar 0.5 ppm 1.0 ppm
Carbon Dioxide CO2 0.5 ppm 0.5 ppm
Helium -4 He 100.0 ppm 1000 ppm
Nitrogen N2 0.5 ppm 0.5 ppm
Oxygen O2 1.0 ppm 1.0 ppm
Water H2O 0.1 ppm 0.1 ppm
** Chemical purity is
exclusive of Helium-4
Data from Rhombic Corporation Helium 3
Energy From He3. One million metric tonnes of He3 reacted with deuterium would generate about 20,000 terre-years of thermal energy.21 A terrewatt- year is one trillion (1012 ) watt- years. One 100 watt bulb uses 100 watt-years of energy in a year. That would indicate what a Terre watt year means. Even if we use all the uranium available on earth and use it for energy production we could generate about half this energy and face some disastrous situation safeguarding the nuclear waste. And in terms of fossil fuel the level of energy will be 10 times greater than the volume we could get from the fossil fuel.
It has been determined that the Sea of Tranquillity is the prime target for mining of Astrofuel because many tonnes of He3 are deposited below the surface.22 The other most important area for mining could be close to Mare Serenatatis. This was discovered by the Apollo 17. Models to explore the Moon are yet to be built, but it has been more or less determined that solar powered robotic equipment would scoop up the top layer of lunar soil, place it into a robotic unit. The soil would be heated upto 6000 C thus separating the He3 from other lunar material.23 The spent material then would be dropped off the back of the moving robotic miner. Because of the Moon’s gravity being one sixth that of the Earth, relatively little energy would be required to lift the material. No tracks would be left by the miner because the soil would be smoothened and slightly fluffed up as the spent material is redeposited on the surface.24
Commercial viability of the Astrofuel was determined by the University Research Center in the year 1987. At 1987 cost, it was found that the US spent $40 billion to buy coal, oil, natural gas and uranium to produce electricity. For supply of similar Mega Watt of electricity for one year US will import only one ship load of fuel and may spend 25 billion dollars. But in terms of dollar to barrel ratio it will work out to be only $7 a barrel as indicated earlier.
Astrofuel is not merely a subject for scientific curiosity, it will have a major impact on industries of the US and other participating countries. Billions of dollars will be required for research and development. Implementation of use of Astrofuel on Earth will require many technologies to be created. Foremost among them are super conducting magnets, plasma control and diagnostics, robotically controlled mining equipment, life support facilities, rocket launch vehicle, telecommunications, power electronics etc. Though the investment seems to be astronomical, but if compared to the benefit derived, the justification will be more than adequate. For example, the amount of coal required to generate 1,000 MW of electricity will be the effort equivalent of half a gallon of Astrofuel per day. And since fusion plants emit no ash or particles, electrostatic precipitation equipment would be unnecessary. US industries have got a head start to use the Persian Gulf of the 21st century to make it a reality. The commercial viability is enormous. Apart from US requirement it is estimated that an additional quantity of 75 to 100 tons of the fuel would be required for the rest of the world. At an average cost of 1 billion dollars a ton, US industries should be able to scoop up an equivalent whopping sum at that point of time when the fossil fuel will be really scarce i.e by the late 2030s. By that time the world will be energy hungry in real terms.
Americans view the 20th century as the century of the Americans. Triumph of Western liberalism over communism had brought about an ultimate stability to the world and the new world order has emerged maybe not fighting another world war, but fighting economic wars. Jasjit Singh while commenting on this, stated that " The bipolar world formally ended with the demise of the Cold War, although it was showing signs of change for quite a many years before that. But the evolving international order is neither unipolar nor multipolar. The former assumes that the solitary "pole" (in this case, the United States) possesses the requisite capabilities and is willing to exercise control and influence over the remaining 183 states in the world."25 Astrofuel source, totally controlled by the Americans will be the ultimate weapon they desire to have.
The debate in USA is about a new world order, actually mooted by President George Bush in September 1990 just before the Gulf War. But he never went on to explain what he meant by the new world order. However, it seems that the new world order was nothing but an order seen through an American prism. US Air Force motto "Global reach Global power" may be an indicator of the US view of the 21st century. President Bush’s interventionist overture in the Gulf crisis to traditional allies was accepted well and they responded enthusiastically. Who were those allies? And why did they readily accept the American invitation to join hands to throw Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait? It was nothing but the instinct of survival and maintaining the economic equilibrium which hung most precariously on the barrels of oil produced from the fields of the Arabian peninsula. Subjugation to Saddam’s game plan and accepting such daylight banditry could have spoilt the Western imagination of the post-communist world order. USA led the Gulf War to its successful completion. An United States which was not ready to commit its ground troops subsequent to the Somalian experience, committed everything possible in its inventory to throw out Iraqi troops from Kuwait. What could have been the driving force for George Bush to behave in such a fashion and make the US people understand the urgency of such an action? The US population never forgot the year 1973 when they had to queue up at the petrol pumps to fill up their petrol tanks. They could not accept such a situation again. George Bush had only to remind his fellow countrymen about the 1973 crisis and Americans rallied behind him. They wanted the scalp of Saddam Hussain. The source of oil could not be disrupted. It was adequately demonstrated that the world order is driven by self interest. Americans understand this more than anyone else. ‘Global reach Global power’ option is exercised even to a distant threat like Osama Bin Laden. Some years back when Buchanan26 a syndicate columnist decided to stand for the Presidential election he attacked the US foreign aid programme and brought in the isolationist theory. The US was not required to maintain its global presence, as the Soviet threat no longer existed. There were others in USA who joined the chorus. With such developments in the mainland of the main global actor, it is really not understood what will happen when the principle source of energy—fossil fuel—will run dry and be non-existent, or will be available at a non-affordable price. The present oil price level should not put the countries in a state of complacency. Everything that is good will be over by the year 2030. The belts will have to be tightened by the year 2020. USA is in the lead for the exploration process of a new source of energy and they are almost in the process of a major breakthrough. They have already declared that the Moon will be the Persian Gulf of the present century. One half a gallon can of Helium3 will do the work of more than 1000 tons of coal. And who will own this real estate? The only source of affordable energy source will be completely dominated by American industries. What will happen to the new world order as envisaged by George Bush or a ultra new order will emerge completely dominated by America. India along with other United Nations members will stand in a queue to receive the quota of fuel fixed by Uncle Sam. All discussion about energy security will take a back seat. United Nations will discuss everything, but the nations will wait for their quota to arrive. Astrofuel will decide politics, economics and world order.
The technology to harness He3 energy source is an on-going process in the laboratories of the US universities. Miniaturisation of the He3 driven reactors would have immense dimension in the future ultra new world order. The Kursk tragedy will be forgotten, never to be repeated by an errant Torpedo. This safe energy could propel submarines, ships and airships for unlimited periods. Dimensions of such a fantasy may overtake Jules Verne but could be transformed into reality.
Indian self-sufficiency in the energy sector is a distant dream. The Planning Commission in its report has very clearly established the gap between the demand and supply, but could not give a satisfactory answer how this huge gap could be bridged. Although oil and gas supplies are in abundance in the world, but what could happen 15 years hence is anybody’s guess. India will have to form an alliance for energy security. Will India be in a position to engage Pakistan in an useful dialogue in an area of mutual concern to secure energy source and have greater access to Central Asia? Complication of India’s energy security interest will arise and at a not too distant future because the US will gradually disengage herself from the Middle East and look elsewhere for its energy requirement. Could Astrofuel be one of them? Indian dependence on energy source will increase rapidly and it would be better for Indian scientists and energy security analysts to analyse this unconventional source and secure a place for India before it is too late.
The time is ripe enough for India to take up the Moon Treaty.27 The Treaty of December 18, 1979 is collecting dust over the last twenty years. It has to be debated upon by all the UN members and to be ratified. India will find many willing participants if it decides to take a lead. Article 1128 of the treaty adequately covers the interests of the entire world community where it states that " The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind, which finds its expression in the provisions of this agreement. And the moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by use or occupation, or by other means." Americans will not be amused but it will not be difficult to convince the world body.
1. Shebonti Ray Dadwal "Energy Security: India’s Options" (Strategic Analysis, July1999) pp. 653-655.
3. Ninth Five Year Plan ( GOI Official Publication) p 106.
5. "Impact of the New Technologies on the Arms Race" ( A Pugwash Monograph, Library of Congress, Catalogue No 72-148970).
6. Proful Bidwai , "Sunken Hopes: Lessons from Nuclear Sub Tragedy" The Times of India, August 30, 2000.
7. Juli A.Macdonald and S.Enders Wimbush "India’s Energy Security", (Strategic Analysis, August 1999.) pp 821-835.
10. Macdonald and Wimbush, n. 7, p. 823.
12. Energy Statistics Source Book 14th Edition.(Tulsa,OK 74121: Penwell) August 1999.
13. Oil and Gas Journal Energy Database publication (Tulsa, OK 74121:)
14. "Lunar Mining Could Provide Future- Energy Source for Earth" (NASA News Release 90-10-09. 10/70/90. Release 90-139).
17. "Astrofuel for the 21st Century" (Handout by the College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison) 1993.
18. Harrison H Schmitt "The Real World and Lunar Base Activation Scenarios" (NASA Conference Publication 3166, vol2) pp. 667-671).
19. NASA News Release 90-10-09.
20. "Helium3" <www. rhombic .com/helium3.html/>
22. Harrison H Schmitt. "The Real World and Lunar Base Activation Scenarios" (NASA Conference Publication 3166, vol2) pp 667-671).
24. "Mining in Manitoba," <http://1122.214.171.124/minsci/future/moontreaty.htm>
25. Jasjit Singh " India’s Strategic and Security Interests" Discussion Paper for the Sixth IDSA-INSS Strategic Symposium, New Delhi Jan 24-25, 1996.
26. Chintamani Mahapatra "Indo-US Relations:Into the 21st Century" (New Delhi: Knowledge World) p. 143.
27 "Moon Treaty" <www.iasl.mcgill.ca/space/moon.htm.>