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Moon Gas to Power the Earth
November 27, 2004 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Power the Earth with Moon gas As if there weren't enough cockamamie ideas for alternative fuel.
posted by Photar (34 comments total)

Pshaw. As if nuclear fusion were somehow crazier than, say, massive safety-hazard wind farms.

Oh, wait, ATOMS. ph34r
posted by darukaru at 12:20 PM on November 27, 2004

Came up before here. Helium-3 would be essential for easy nuclear fusion; unfortunately we've yet to figure out how, exactly, to do easy nuclear fusion. After that, we'd have to figure out how to mine the moon efficiently. A few hurdles to keep in mind.
posted by mek at 12:24 PM on November 27, 2004

Mek: cockamamie indeed.
posted by Photar at 12:27 PM on November 27, 2004

Sorry, posted the old article link. MeFi discussion.
posted by mek at 12:27 PM on November 27, 2004

Why, exactly, is a wind farm a massive safety hazard? It's certainly not "more crazy" than fusion, if crazy means anything in this dialog.
posted by odinsdream at 12:28 PM on November 27, 2004

odinsdream: Have you seen those things? No protective covers, they could cut your fingers right off! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!
posted by Photar at 12:31 PM on November 27, 2004

If it's not red meat, potato or oil it's cockamamie.
posted by stbalbach at 12:31 PM on November 27, 2004

stbalbach: I think its cockamamie if it involves stuff we don't know how to do that requires resources we don't know how to get on other celestial bodies.
posted by Photar at 12:35 PM on November 27, 2004

I absolutely love the idea of powering the Earth with helium-3 slung back from the moon. It's so sparkly 50s-sci-fi. I like to think it'd come on the same day as the silver jumpsuits are sent out to homes and the flying cars arrive in the showroom. Plus, the moon has no ecosystem, which might mean we could cut back on the whole inflicting-horrendous-damage-on-the-earth thing.

My only question, to more sciencey types than I: wouldn't removing however much (the link assumes 100 tons a year, but I have no idea how realistic that is) mass from the moon be a really bad thing for the earth, tide-wise?
posted by terpsichoria at 12:38 PM on November 27, 2004

Can't we do those microwave-beamy-collection things that was in SimCity 2000? I guess the only downside is that a few square blocks get fried after 20 years, but if we keep replacing them with new collectors we should be able to build the arcologies in no time at all.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:41 PM on November 27, 2004

terpsichoria, 1.1 million tonnes is so little that it would not matter. It represents 0.0000000000015% of the moon's mass.
posted by spazzm at 1:11 PM on November 27, 2004


Even 1000 tons per years would be inconsequential in terms of mass of the moon. Besides, if we were going there that often (though we wouldn't be - if we were really doing this I imagine the trip from there to here would be accomplished by a system similar to the one described by Heinlein in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" - oops - did I just Godwin on accident?) we could always take all the garbage we produce each year and dump it to counterbalance the effect.
posted by Yellowbeard at 1:12 PM on November 27, 2004

Wind farms are neat and all, but where do you get power on windless days?
posted by spazzm at 1:14 PM on November 27, 2004

spazzm, I can't tell if you're serious. If you are, then I suggest you research the Battery.
posted by odinsdream at 1:31 PM on November 27, 2004

odinsdream, what kind of battery do you imagine that could store, say, 1 day's energy consumption for the US? Energizer?

Batteries have severe drawbacks - they're expensive or created with hazardous chemicals, for example.
posted by spazzm at 1:38 PM on November 27, 2004

Solar panels are where its at.
posted by Photar at 1:44 PM on November 27, 2004

Solar panels are neat and all, but where do you get power on windless days?

One problem with wind and solar power is that the electricity has to be generated at one site (where wind or sun is plentiful) and then transported to a different site for consumption. These two sites may be far apart, leading to expensive transmission losses, high maintenance costs and a vulnerable infrastructure.
Furthermore, high-power transmission lines have been accused of causing cancer.
posted by spazzm at 1:55 PM on November 27, 2004

Solar panels are neat and all, but where do you get power on overcast days?

posted by spazzm at 1:56 PM on November 27, 2004

spazzm, you speak as though wind farms don't currently exist. There are a significant amount of these machines already in operation. I'm not an electrical technician, so I'll be the first to admit, if you're looking for someone to design a battery to store several million BTU's of energy, I'm not that someone.
posted by odinsdream at 1:56 PM on November 27, 2004

Yeah, moon gas is cockamamie. But this could be the start of something wonderful. And it's already been proven to work. Vive la Skippy!
posted by HifiToaster at 2:01 PM on November 27, 2004

odinsdream: I'm not saying wind power is impossible, I'm just saying it's not a magic cure-all that will end our environmental and energy-supply woes in one stroke.

If you're not familiar with battery technology, I suggest you read up on lead-acid and cadmium. Not exactly environmentally friendly stuff.
posted by spazzm at 2:06 PM on November 27, 2004

The lunar soil, regolith, absorbs hydrogen 3 (tritium) from the solar wind. Harvesting the tritium would not affect tides in the slightest.

If we do get fusion working as a viable power source it actually makes a lot of sense to get tritium from lunar sources. Tritium today is mostly obtained by processing sea water, good enough for our current purposes (a bit of research and keeping H-bombs fueled), but not enough for commercial power production.

Wind power is nice, but unless we develop a much better power storage system it isn't really practical to use for more than around 25% of energy demand. And I say that as a native of an area that is making pretty good money shipping wind power elsewhere. Additionally there is the fact that wind power may have unforeseen ecological consequences. Widespread use would reduce the amount of energy in the atmosphere, who knows what that will do to global weather patterns.

In the long run, only orbital solar or fusion really makes much sense. Everything else is too unstable, too ecologically harmful, or both. I really hope that we solve fusion quickly, peak oil is coming, and peak coal not long after that.
posted by sotonohito at 2:20 PM on November 27, 2004

Calling tritium "moon gas" doesn't make much sense...true, molecular Hydrogen is a gas (or plasma) pretty much anywhere, elemental Hydrogen as a component of other molecules is not. My understanding of the Tritium on the moon is that it has been embedded (like Geraldo!) into existing solid material, and is no longer gaseous. Gaseous Hydrogen, of any isotope, would escape the moon right quick.
posted by spincycle at 2:30 PM on November 27, 2004

Windfarms are not just placed in every-which location. Environmental studies and wind data are acquired over a number of years, and there are some economical factors that allow the placing of the wind farm. (If not enough wind-days, not enough power generated = bad return on investment).
Batteries are not an option. To store energy at such quantities, the best option is to generate hydrogen with surplus energy, and then use a fuel cell to get the energy back out of the hydrogen during peak demands.

Wind power will never produce enough power to meet baseloads. They look good, but really..
The largest wind turbine is currently in Germany, and produces 5MW. A small powerstation (geothermal) runs ~100MW. A large nuclear plant, 2GW (gigawatts) or more. (400 times the energy of this massive wind turbine)

Currently most power is generated by coal and oil. As these resources are depleted, we must switch to nuclear. I know, the world has been brainwashed into thinking nuclear is EVIL.. but that isn't completely correct. Yes, risks exist, but as long as those risks are managed correctly, it is a very viable power source.

Is the energy expenditure of going to the moon, setting up a mining operation there (definitely NOT a trivial operation, probably requiring half a trillion or more dollars), and sending back the helium-3 worth it? I believe more conventional fusion, like the sun works will be achieved way before the transportation problems will be solved and the shortcut Helium-3 fusion will be feasible.
posted by defcom1 at 2:43 PM on November 27, 2004

Fusion is what I hold out hope for, but there is nothing inherently wrong with fission. What I do object to is fission in the hands of for profit corporations. They like to cut corners too much for me to ever feel safe.

France, just to take an example, generates more than 70% of its power by fission. Those who fear nuclear power really should read up on how France handles things.
posted by sotonohito at 2:59 PM on November 27, 2004

I'm not quite sure about for-profit private companies cutting too many corners on Nuclear reactors. Don't forget that there are many government regulations and standards for construction and operation (in the developed world). In addition, the cost of screwing up is very, very high, and something not desired by any party.
posted by defcom1 at 3:43 PM on November 27, 2004

Of course no one wants any screwing up. But safety costs money. The regulatory agencies are generally pretty toothless, and underfunded and understaffed. Several US atomic reactors that have been in operation since the mid 1970's just got their first inspections in 2000. Tell me that the same people who brought us Enron, WorldCom, Harken, etc won't skimp a bit when they know that inspection is rare.

Non-Profit corporations are the way to go here, not for profit. Even with that we still need a bigger, better funded agency to do the inspections (preferably with inspectors rotating throughout the country so that no owners can form relationships with their inspectors).

I will also point out that the insurance companies refuse to insure US atomic reactors without premiums higher than the reactor's profits. This is why every year Congress passes yet another extension on a law originally drafted back in the 1950's that exempts atomic power plants from needing insurance. Any accidents happen and the taxpayer foots the bill. Privatized profits, socialized risks; not really an environment that would cause the owners to be safety fanatics.
posted by sotonohito at 4:05 PM on November 27, 2004

if only we could work the kinks out....
posted by exlotuseater at 5:28 PM on November 27, 2004

It seems to me this guy is assuming 100% efficency in his mythical fusion plants and superconducting transmission lines.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:14 AM on November 28, 2004

spazzm -

Charging and discharging batteries is inherently wasteful - you only get a small fraction out of what you put in. So, you only get power out of a wind farm when the wind blows. Suppose right now, you have a city running on natgas generators - demand goes up, you burn more gas. Gas has a "battery" - that is, what you don't burn now, you can burn later. So if we add a wind farm to our gas city, whenever the wind blows, we get the power from the wind farm and save the gas for later. You need an "on demand" source of power - fossil fuels are good for this.

The reason we don't do this (more often) in 2004 is that it's cheaper to burn fossil fuels than to maintain the windmills, i.e. wind is free but the mills themselves are expensive to run. Fossil fuels run low; prices go up, so that won't always be the case.
posted by swell at 12:29 AM on November 28, 2004

Oh, and Photar: The usual argument (from Vice Prez Halliburton Cheney, and many concerned scientists from oil companies) is that the windmills endanger birds. Which is logically true, but I've yet to see anyone who didn't have an economic motive make that argument.
posted by swell at 1:16 AM on November 28, 2004

swell -

That's correct, but it does mean we'll end up with a double system - double the maintenance cost, double the infrastructure, double the staffing cost.

And despite this double system, it won't be redundant, and thus as prone to failure as the current system.
posted by spazzm at 2:27 AM on November 28, 2004

One problem with wind and solar power is that the electricity has to be generated at one site (where wind or sun is plentiful) and then transported to a different site for consumption. These two sites may be far apart, leading to expensive transmission losses, high maintenance costs and a vulnerable infrastructure.

You're in error here. Because renewable energy generators are more modular than traditional centralised generation than can be constructed closer to wherever electricity demand exists. Thus there is less transmission loss than with centralised power sources. Loss is also reduced as there is less need for transformation of electricity from high to lower voltage parts of the grid. Additionally, rather than weakening infrastructure, increased distributed generation also effectively makes the generating grid stronger due to the reduced distance between generator and consumer and the decreased likelihood that consumers will be cut off from a generator in the event of some network failure. A basic guide to the costs and benefits of distributed generation can be found here.

It is likely that there may be some network management problems at higher penetration levels of renewable generators/distributed generators, particularly those technologies with higher degrees of intermittency. However, these can be dealt with by increased use of active (as opposed to traditional passive) network management. This technology is increasingly being adopted on networks with higher levels of intermittent power, most notably in Denmark, where penetration of wind power is around 20% of all generating capacity. It is even possible that more active management of networks will actually lead to cost savings for consumers due to reductions in system losses, increased competition and thus reduced costs. It may also make it possible for companies to offer consumers an increased range of options for energy services, that will better meet their precise needs with regard to cost and/or quality of supply/security of supply.
What is required to deal with these changes are consideration of all generating technologies in the drawing up of regulation concerning the operation of electricity markets and networks, such that all the costs and benefits of both traditional centralised and newer more distributed technologies are taken into consideration.

swell: you are correct about the need for back up fuels, but this does not necessarily mean fossil fuel. While obviously in the short term large scale fossil fuel use is a given, in the longer term, firm electrical generation can increasingly come from burning biomass and from other renewable generating sources that are more predictable.
posted by biffa at 4:48 AM on November 29, 2004

Just like the space elevator -- I see this project as INEVITABLE. It will happen one day.

You heard it here. You'll tell your grandchildren one day.
posted by mooncrow at 7:51 AM on November 29, 2004

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