China Finds Potential Fuel for Nuclear Fusion Energy on Surface of Moon

Lunar dust could contain fuel for nuclear fusion power plants of the future and scientists have studied its concentration for the first time.

In December 2020, China's Chang'e-5 mission made history by returning samples from the surface of the moon back to Earth—the first time China had done so. It also marked the first time lunar samples had been retrieved in more than 40 years.

Since then, scientists have been carefully studying the samples to work out what lunar dust is made of—a process that can provide insights into the formation of the early solar system.

Although scientists have had access to lunar dust since the Apollo missions of the '60s and '70s, much of it was stored for decades as they knew they would not be able to study it as well as they would like until future technological advancements were made.

China on moon
A stock illustration depicts a hypothetical scene with an astronaut on the moon holding a Chinese flag. Scientists have proposed that lunar dust could contain fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors and China has been studying concentrations of potential nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 in lunar dust. 3DSculptor/Getty

The Chang'e-5 samples have been found to contain an element known as Helium–3, a stable isotope of helium that contains two protons and one neutron. An isotope is a form of a certain element that contains the same number of protons as the base element but a different number of neutrons. This gives isotopes a different atomic mass but the same chemical properties as their base element.

Helium-3 is a stable, non-radioactive isotope, and scientists have considered that it could be used as a fuel in future nuclear fusion reactors since it would not produce dangerous waste products—one of the drawbacks of existing nuclear fission plants.

Scientists have known that Helium-3 exists on the moon for decades; in 1986 they estimated there could be around one million tons of it stored in lunar soil.

However, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency, Chinese researchers have for the first time determined the concentration of Helium-3 in lunar samples as well as its extraction parameters. Xinhua did not report the exact concentration.

Nuclear fusion power—in which atomic nuclei are fused together to form one single nucleus, releasing energy in the process—is something scientists have been working on for decades, since it promises to be a clean and powerful energy source. A working reactor capable of powering a grid is believed to be decades away but incremental breakthroughs occur regularly.

Looking far into the future, scientists have proposed using Helium-3 or other lunar materials as fuel for missions on the moon and beyond—eliminating the need for fuel to be transported into space from Earth first.

Lunar Helium-3 could be a promising source of fuel for Earth's future fusion reactors, since there are concerns that tritium—a hydrogen isotope used as fuel in current reactor prototypes—is running low on Earth.

However, engineers will have to design a reliable, energy-producing fusion reactor before any of this can be realistically considered.

In addition to the Helium-3 concentrations, the Chang'e-5 samples also contained a new diamond-like mineral that has been named Changesite-(Y).

Discovered by scientists at the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology, Changesite-(Y) is the first new lunar mineral found by China and the sixth new lunar mineral discovered to date.