Lunar Volatiles: Fuel The Future

Why We Go is a WayPaver Foundation publication focused on sparking conversation about the economic, scientific, and technical opportunities presented by the development of a Lunar Settlement. Featured here is one of the articles from our first volume. Read the whole issue here: and check out our previous Medium article.

By Aaron D.S Olson

In 1985 researchers at the Fusion Technology Institute realized that ³He, to fuel fusion reactors, could be found on the Moon and that there could be more than a million tonnes of the helium isotope in the regolith (loosely bound top soil) near the surface [1].

The fusion community had already known about the prospect of using ³He to produce economical nuclear power with no nuclear waste or proliferation risk, but had not identified a feasible source of the helium isotope. Several conceptual designs of mining and processing systems were developed to harvest ³He from the Moon at the FTI [2]–[5]. The economics, legal framework and management aspects of a ³He endeavor were also elaborated on in Return to the Moon [6]. The value of 1% of the energy in the million tonnes of estimated lunar ³He is $60 trillion. This is roughly three times the U.S.’s national debt. This assumes a conservative 10 MWyr of electrical energy per kilogram of ³He and that this energy is valued at $46.67 per 1.7 MWh (barrel of oil equivalent price November, 2016 and 40% thermal cycle efficiency).

Fusion energy, which has traditionally been viewed to be decades away, may now be on the horizon with innovative and well-funded companies like Tri Alpha Energy, Inc. developing reactor technology that could be fueled with ³He. For the first time in the space industry, companies are now developing platforms and services to land commercial payloads on the Moon. In tandem with this, NASA and private industry have taken a greater interest in the fuel and life support resources available on the Moon, asteroids and Mars for commercial purposes and to enable longer duration missions beyond low Earth orbit.

As a PhD candidate and NASA Space Technology Research Fellow at the FTI, I started a project to demonstrate the ability to extract ³He and other valuable volatiles from lunar regolith in a way that could fuel future clean fusion power plants and supply astronauts with fuel and life support.

Volatiles are elements and compounds with low boiling points and in this context, the primary ones of value in space are water, hydrogen, oxygen, methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. With the guidance of FTI Professors Gerald Kulcinski, John Santarius and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17 Astronaut) and support from Dr. James Mantovani and NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Works Lab, I have been developing a prototype volatiles extraction system that is designed to heat 600 grams per second of regolith particles smaller than 100 microns to 700°C.

This heating occurs in a recuperative moving bed heat pipe heat exchanger (HPHX). At this temperature, past studies on samples from the Apollo program, have shown that 86% of the contained ³He is released along with the aforementioned valuable volatiles [8]. These other volatiles are released in much larger quantities. Six tonnes of hydrogen are released for every kilogram of ³He. The HPHX allows for 85% recuperation of thermal energy, i.e., hot regolith that has given up its resources helps heat the next batch of incoming regolith. Thermal energy recuperation is critical for minimizing system mass, power and size requirements. The prototype system is referred to as the Helium Extraction and Acquisition Testbed (HEAT).

The HEAT design is illustrated here. HEAT’s performance will be evaluated by measuring regolith temperature with thermocouples in select regions of the device and measuring the helium gas release rate within a vacuum chamber with a residual gas analyzer. A system to implant helium into simulated lunar regolith for the testing of HEAT has also been developed [9].

HEAT is part of a development approach toward lunar volatiles miners as seen below.

If thought of in three phases, testing HEAT in a FTI lab would be phase one.

Phase two would be an iteration of the technology for the testing of the system in a 1/6 gravity environment (lunar gravity) onboard a parabolic flight.

Phase three would be testing a version of the technology on the surface of the Moon as a small payload flown on a commercial lander.

The beginning of mining operations for in-space or terrestrial use of the extracted volatiles would follow these steps.

About Aaron D.S Olson

What could be more thrilling for a young engineer starting graduate school than an opportunity to work on the development of technology that could help enable a new clean source of energy for the world and help open the lunar frontier that the heroes of the Apollo program cracked open back in the 1960s and 70s? I joined the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012 with this thought in mind. I wanted to make an impact!

As an undergraduate mechanical engineering student, I worked as an intern at both NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA Langley Research Center, and won the 2011 NASA Exploration Habitat competition as a part of a student team that built an expandable module for NASA’s Deep Space Habitat Prototype. I conducted an experiment onboard a Zero-G parabolic flight with NASA’s Undergraduate Microgravity Research program and played the role of a Martian astronaut as a member of the 110th Mars Desert Research Station Crew. These experiences certainly sharpened my skills as an engineer, but more importantly, they further fueled my passion to contribute to the development of space.


Founded in 1971, the Fusion Technology Institute investigates and assesses technological problems posed by controlled thermonuclear fusion reactors. The education of graduate students provides research personnel for the national fusion program, industry, and educational institutions. The FTI has performed more than $70 million in research for federal, state and industrial organizations, graduated 167 Ph.D. candidates, and published over 60000 pages of reports.


[1] L. J. Wittenberg, J. F. Santarius, and G. L. Kulcinski, “Lunar Source of 3He For Commercial Fusion Power,” Fusion Technol., vol. 10, pp. 167–178, 1986.

[2] I. N. Sviatoslavsky and M. K. Jacobs, “Mobile Helium-3 Mining and Extraction System and Its Benefits Toward Lunar Base Self-Sufficiency,” in Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics Technical Report (WCSAR-TR) AR3–8808–1, 1988.

[3] I. N. Sviatoslavsky, “The Challenge of Mining He-3 on the Lunar Surface: How All the Parts Fit Together,” in Space 94, The 4th International Conference and Exposition on Engineering, Construction and Operations in Space, and The Conference and Exposition/Demonstration on Robotics for Challenging Environments, February 26 — March 3, 1994, Albuquerque NM Also: WCS, 1993.

[4] M. Gajda, “A Lunar Volatiles Miner,” University of Wisconsin-Madison, M.S. Thesis, 2006.

[5] H. H. Schmitt, G. L. Kulcinski, I. N. Sviatoslavsky, and W. D. Carrier, “Spiral Mining for Lunar Volatiles,” Sp. 92, Third Int. Conf. Eng. Constr. Oper. Space, 31 May-4 June 1992, Denver CO Also Wisconsin Cent. Sp. Autom. Robot. Tech. Rep. AR3–9203–1, p. 6, 1992.

[6] H. H. Schmitt, “Return to the Moon,” in Return to the Moon, Praxis, 2005, p. 89.

[7] A. D. S. Olson, “The Mark IV: A Scalable Lunar Miner Prototype,” in International Astronautical Congress 2013, Beijing, China, IAC-13.A3.2B.7, 2013.

[8] R. O. Pepin, L. E. Nyquist, D. Phinney, and D. C. Black, “Rare Gases in Apollo 11 Lunar Material,” in Proceedings of the Apollo 11 Lunar Science Conference, 1970, pp. 1435–1454.

[9] A. D. S. Olson, G. L. Kulcinski, J. F. Santarius, and J. G. Mantovani, “Helium Implantation Into JSC-1A Lunar Regolith Simulant for Testing Volatile Extraction Technologies,” in Earth and Space 2016, 2016.

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