Science

Discovery of a potential source of energy and a new mineral on the Moon

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On December 16, 2020, a capsule with lunar soil samples taken by China’s Chang’e-5 probe landed in Inner Mongolia. These samples have been carefully examined by scientists. The China Space Administration and the China Atomic Energy Administration have just announced the discovery of a brand new mineral they have named Changesite-(Y). This is the first time that China has discovered a new mineral on our satellite.

Thanks to the Chang’e-5 mission, China became the third country (after the United States and the former Soviet Union) to bring lunar samples to Earth. There have been no reports of lunar material since 1976! Therefore, with interest and great meticulousness, Chinese scientists analyzed approximately 1700 grams of regolith collected in the Mons Rümker area. Today they announce that they have discovered a new mineral – the sixth discovered on the Moon.

According to the Xinhua news agency, this new mineral is a transparent and colorless columnar crystal. It was discovered as a result of the analysis of lunar basalt particles by a research team from the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology, a subsidiary of the China National Nuclear Corporation. The discovery makes China the third country in the world to discover a new mineral on the moon, said Dong Baotong, deputy director of China’s Atomic Energy Authority.

Another step towards the exploitation of lunar helium 3

Changesite-(Y), present in the sample as a single particle with a radius of approximately 10 micrometers, has been officially approved by the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification of the International Mineralogical Association as a new mineral.

A new mineral, dubbed Changesite-(Y), was discovered in lunar samples during the Chang’e 5 mission. © People’s Daily

But the Chang’e-5 mission made it possible to obtain another important information: the samples made it possible to estimate the concentration of helium-3 contained in lunar dust and determine the parameters for its extraction. However, helium-3 is a promising potential fuel for nuclear fusion. The “preferred” fusion reaction is usually initiated by two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. The latter has one proton and two neutrons; it decays into helium 3, emitting low-energy beta radiation and an electron antineutrino.

The helium-3 nucleus has two protons and one neutron (this is the only known stable isotope of the element in which there are more protons than neutrons). The fusion reaction of deuterium and helium 3 gives helium 4 and a proton; theoretically, it could release 164.3 megawatt-hours of energy per gram of helium-3, says New Atlas. The advantage of this reaction is that neither the helium 3 nor the reaction products are radioactive (unlike the deuterium-tritium reaction, where the neutrons produced can make the materials in the reactor radioactive).

If this reaction is not currently considered by experimental fusion reactors, it is because it requires even higher temperatures than a tritium reactor (about 600 million degrees!), not to mention that helium-3 is extremely rare and difficult to isolated on Earth (in the atmosphere it is present in insignificant concentrations of the order of 7 parts per trillion). Today, helium-3 is obtained mainly from the decay of tritium, which itself is produced in a nuclear fission reactor. On the Moon, it is much more: the lunar reserves of helium-3 are estimated at 1.1 million metric tons.

Valuable resource but difficult to use

According to International Policy Digest, that’s about $1.5 quadrillion in resources (not counting the price increases associated with using helium-3 in future fusion reactors)! For Ouyang Ziyuan, head of China’s lunar exploration program, these resources represent a “transformational fusion power opportunity”: “Each year, three space shuttle missions can provide enough fuel for all people on the planet,” he said in the mid-2000s. . .

An interesting resource, but the construction of a lunar mining facility would require significant costs, not to mention the organization of the return to Earth of extracted helium-3 … The maximum concentrations of helium-3 in lunar soil are estimated at about 50 parts per billion, so to obtain one gram of this isotope, it is necessary to process 150 tons of regolith! Note that China has not reported the exact concentrations found in its samples.

The cost of extracting the precious isotope does not seem to deter the ambitions of China, which is determined to position itself in the sector as soon as possible. As noted in International Policy Digest, he alone mapped the helium-3 deposits on the far side of the moon. “If China had a monopoly on the helium-3 available on the Moon, it would become the first economic power on Earth,” the magazine concludes.

Following the announcement of the discovery, the Chinese Space Agency also confirmed the next three lunar missions of the Chang’e exploration program in the next 10 years. The Chang’e-6 mission, scheduled to launch in 2024, is supposed to collect samples from the far side of the moon; future missions will be used to explore the south pole of the moon and lay the foundation stone for an international lunar exploration station.

Xinhua

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