Here’s a riddle: What do the Moon, nuclear weapons, clean energy of the future, terrorism, and lung disease all have in common?
The answer is helium-3, a gas that’s extremely rare on Earth but 100 million times more abundant on the Moon. This past October, the Lockheed Martin corporation announced a concept for a lunar landing craft that may return humans to the Moon in the coming decade, and yesterday China successfully landed the Change-4 probe on the far side of the Moon. Landing inside the Moon’s deepest crater, the Chinese achieved a first in space exploration history.
Meanwhile, later this month, India’s Chandrayaan-2 space probe will also land on the lunar surface. One of its goals is to locate deposits of helium-3 that are worth trillions of dollars, because it could be a fuel for nuclear fusion energy to generate electricity or propel a rocket.
The standard way that nuclear engineers are trying to achieve sustainable fusion uses fuels that are more plentiful on Earth: deuterium and tritium. But MIT researchers have found that adding small amounts of helium-3 to the mix could make it much more efficient, and thus a viable energy source much sooner that once thought.
Even if fusion is proven practical tomorrow, any kind of nuclear energy involves long waits for power plant construction measured in decades. However, mining helium-3 could be useful now, because of its non-energy applications. A major one is its ability to detect neutrons coming from plutonium that could be used in terrorist attacks. Here’s how it works: a small amount of helium-3 is contained within a forensic instrument. When a neutron hits an atom of helium-3, the reaction produces tritium, a proton, and an electrical charge, alerting investigators to the possibility that plutonium is nearby.
Ironically, as global concern about a potential for hidden nuclear material increased in the early 2000s, so did the supply of helium-3 on Earth. That’s because helium-3 comes from the decay of tritium, used in thermonuclear warheads (H-bombs). Thousands of such weapons have been dismantled from U.S. and Russian arsenals, making helium-3 available for plutonium detection, research, and other applications–including in the world of healthcare.
Helium-3 dramatically improves the ability of doctors to image the lungs in a range of diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which happens particularly in premature infants. Specifically, helium-3 is useful in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a procedure that creates images from within the body for diagnostic purposes.
But while a standard MRI allows doctors to visualize parts of the body like the heart or brain, it’s useless for seeing the lungs. Because lungs are filled with air, which is much less dense than water or fat, effectively no signals are produced that would enable imaging.
To compensate for this problem, a patient can inhale gas that is hyperpolarized –meaning enhanced with special procedures so that the magnetic resonance signals from the lungs are finally readable. This gas is safe to breathe when mixed with enough oxygen to support life. Helium-3 is one such gas that can be hyperpolarized; since it produces such a strong signal, the MRI can literally see the air inside the lungs and in all of the airways, revealing intricate details of the bronchopulmonary tree. And it can do this in real time
The capability to show anatomic details of the lungs and airways, and the ability to display functional imaging as a patient breathes, makes helium-3 MRI far better than the standard method of testing lung function. Called spirometry, this method tells physicians how the lungs function overall, but does not home in on particular areas that may be causing a problem. Plus, spirometry requires patients to follow instructions and hold their breath, so it is not great for testing young children with pulmonary disease.
Over the past several years, researchers have been developing MRI for lung testing using other hyperpolarized gases. The main alternative to helium-3 is xenon-129. Over the years, researchers have learned to overcome certain disadvantages of the latter, such as its potential to put patients to sleep. Since helium-3 provides the strongest signal, though, it is still the best gas for MRI studies in many lung conditions.
But the supply of helium-3 on Earth has been decreasing in recent years, due to the declining rate of dismantling of warheads, just as the Department of Homeland Security has required more and more of the gas for neutron detection. As a result, the cost of the gas has skyrocketed. Less is available now for medical uses – unless, of course, we begin mining it on the moon.
The question is: Are the benefits worth the 239,000-mile trip?