The best thing you can say about Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is that he has dedicated himself and his fortune to uncovering the many irritations Americans have been unknowingly subjected to for years. In the process, however, Musk has innovated some brand-new irritations, foremost among them his seemingly prohibitive focus on the website he now owns. The breakthrough that has reportedly taken place at the U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF) puts the billionaire visionary’s misplaced priorities into sharp relief, in part because he is one of very few who could make the most of it.
On Sunday, the Financial Times revealed that a quantum leap had taken place. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had done it. Finally, the lab’s NIF fusion reactor briefly managed to achieve “net power generation,” the output of more power from a fusion reaction than the power required to produce it.
The holy grail of clean energy, the prospect of fusion-generated power was never fiction. But observers could be forgiven for regarding it as such, if only because the pace of progress toward it has been halting and fraught.
As the Cold War wound to a close, the competitive impulses contributing to its development withered away. Research into the subject was consolidated in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, which innovated by committee and devoted as much energy to debating the location of its facilities as it did to “ignition.”
Private enterprises and semi-private research facilities all over the world have since intervened, but a project this speculative relies on public investment. Construction of the NIF took much longer than anticipated, came in over budget, and was never free from controversy. But work toward “ignition” continued. Last year, the NIF shattered its own records when its laser array bombarded a tiny frozen pellet of deuterium and tritium with ultraviolet beams creating a fusion reaction that produced about 700 times the power produced by the entire U.S. electrical grid at any given moment.
To give some idea of how much energy this reaction requires, that breakthrough still only generated about 70 percent of the power that went into it. With its latest reaction, however, the NIF has reportedly produced about 20 percent more power than it consumed—an event so furious that it reportedly “damaged some diagnostic equipment.” There are still bugs to be worked out in the process of containing and controlling a thermonuclear reaction, and the system responsible for this landmark is still extremely inefficient. But progress is now tangible.
That’s where Musk comes in—or, at least, where the commercial space-exploration industry he helped incept into existence should take the lead. Deuterium is relatively common, but tritium is impossibly rare. It exists only in trace amounts—a byproduct of interactions between cosmic radiation and gasses in the earth’s upper atmosphere. It can also be produced by fusion reactions, but you need a functioning fusion reactor to create it. It’s an open question whether functioning tokamak reactors, if and when they come online, will consume more nuclear fuel than they produce. There is a solution to this conundrum: the isotope helium-3.
Known to science since at least 1988, this non-radioactive isotope is theoretically ideal for generating power in sustained fusion reactions. Unlike the hydrogen isotope Tritium, it produces no dangerous and high-energy neutrons when fused with deuterium atoms—only protons, which electromagnetic fields can contain. In addition to having important medical and industrial applications, helium-3 is a more efficient means of producing near-limitless power via fusion reactions.
While it likely does exist on Earth, this isotope is extremely sparse. Helium-3 floats along with the solar wind and does not survive long inside the Earth’s magnetic field. Owing to humanity’s present technological limits, it is harvestable, but only either with massive solar collectors in orbit or by collecting the helium-3 that accumulates on the lunar surface.
Strip-mining the top layer of lunar rock, siphoning out the helium-3, and transporting it back to Earth sounds science fictional, but no spacefaring nation is acting like it. In the first decade of this century, Russia maintained that the ultimate goal of its space program was a permanent lunar colony that would be engaged in helium-3 extraction. China has proven the concept by returning samples of the isotope to Earth with its Chang’e 5 lunar lander mission. In partnership with its domestic space agencies and the combined engineering genius of the developed world, America and its nascent private space-exploration industry is uniquely positioned to win the second race to the moon and harvest and exploit its natural resources. But it must summon the resolve to dedicate itself to that project.
Congress can help, but mostly by getting out of the way. In much the same way that Congress helped open the American West to settlement and development, the federal legislature should issue speculative land rights to companies devoted to harvesting lunar material. Those rights can be enforced through the imposition of tariffs on imports made with materials exploited by patent violators (which would also apply to the platinum group metals and oxides that are also found on the lunar surface). American and European space agencies can encourage and subsidize the development of applicable technologies. But these are not commercial enterprises, and they are too unwieldy to attempt the transition.
The moon will soon be a business, and businesses should take the lead. Musk’s SpaceX is part of the equation, but so, too, are firms such as Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and even defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman. It will take many years—maybe even decades—before a net-gain fusion reaction produces a reliable and stable reaction in commercial reactors. But it will also take years to develop and field a lunar mining operation. Whoever wins that race will reap incalculable financial rewards, to say nothing of giving birth to an epochal civilizational advance.