Researchers have discovered an inexplicable abundance of rare nuclear fusion fuel on Earth
By: April Carson
A recent study claims that Helium-3, a potential source of limitless clean energy, may be 10 times more widespread on our planet than previously assumed.
This is a fascinating finding, as Helium-3 is an incredibly rare element that is not found in nature on Earth. So where did all this Helium-3 come from?
A new study has found that scientists have discovered evidence that a vital uncommon resource, called helium-3, is significantly more common on Earth than previously thought—though the source of all this extra supply remains a mystery. The finding is significant because helium-3 may be used as a source of clean energy for our civilization but has been thought to be out of reach since it is mostly found in outer space locations, especially the Moon.
Helium-3 is a type of helium that has the same number of protons as ordinary hydrogen but a different number of neutrons. This isotope is being studied for its potential use in future fusion reactors, making it both a science fiction and real-world star. However, while minuscule amounts of the stuff are produced by natural processes and nuclear weapons testing, there appears to be little available on Earth.
The discovery of a previously unknown quantity of helium-3 in the atmosphere, reported on Monday in Nature Geoscience by researchers led by Benjamin Birner, a postdoctoral fellow in geosciences at the University of California San Diego, raises "a significant puzzle" and "provides motivation for searching for missing helium-3 sources on Earth," according to the study. Only 10% of the surplus can be accounted for by known sources of helium-3 on Earth.
Nuclear fusion, which powers the sun and stars, is an elusive process in which atoms join together to form larger atoms, releasing enormous amounts of energy in the process. On Earth, scientists have been working for decades to harness this energy source, but have so far been unsuccessful.
If successful, nuclear fusion could provide a virtually limitless and environmentally friendly source of energy. Helium-3, a rare isotope of helium, is seen as a key ingredient for future nuclear fusion reactors.
Birner and his team discovered this inferred helium-3 (3He) surplus while attempting to solve another perplexing problem: determining the overall rise in atmospheric helium as a result of human usage of fossil fuels. The research team developed a unique method for estimating these anthropogenic helium emissions by analyzing another isotope, helium-4 (4He), which produced the unexpected conclusion that we have an unknown source of helium-3 on our planet.
“We only tracked the change in atmospheric 4He,” Birner stated. “However, previous research by other scientists has found that the atmosphere's helium isotopic ratio (3He/4He) is relatively constant. These findings suggest that there has been an increase in 3He in the atmosphere to match the 4He rise or else we would see a change in the isotope ratio of air.”
Helium-3 has the potential to be a great nuclear fusion fuel, which would replicate the same process that sustains stars. Despite the fact that nuclear fusion may not become a realistic power source for years, if it is viable at all, its potential to provide clean and limitless energy to the global human population makes it an intriguing field of study. To that end, scientists from various disciplines will undoubtedly want to search for this inexplicable surplus of helium-3 on Earth predicted by the new study.
Dr. Birner continued, “There's an extra 3He in the atmosphere right now, and that's quite unusual because we don't have a good answer for the source of this 3He yet. It's also a major problem to solve because 3He is an essential and rare resource for nuclear fusion reactors. Based on previous studies' reported ranges of uncertainty, the increase of 3He appears to be significant, but our research clearly motivates further study of the atmospheric 3He/4He trend.”
The second lightest and most abundant natural element, after hydrogen, helium may also be produced by humans via the usage of fossil fuels, especially natural gas. Noble gases are a specific group of elements that are less reactive with other substances than other elements in their category. Because atmospheric helium is not a greenhouse gas or a dangerous pollutant in comparison to other anthropogenic emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, it is not considered one. Despite the fact that atmospheric helium does not contribute to human-driven climate change, it serves an important tracer function.
Dr. Josh Birner, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin's Computational Science Graduate Program, said: "The change in atmosphere due to helium is an old problem in atmospheric chemistry, and it should be able to help us understand fossil fuel consumption." "Since the 1980s, people have been concerned that there should be a 4He buildup in the atmosphere," he continued. "Clear observational evidence was lacking until now."
“For a while, my coworkers and I have been studying atmospheric noble gases as indicators of ocean temperature change, but we haven't applied the same analytical technique to helium before. In some ways, it's a natural progression because because of its link to fossil fuel usage, helium is a fascinating noble gas to study.”
However, according to Birner, previous studies have produced anthropogenic helium estimates by focusing on the ratio of 3He and 4He. However, because so little 3He exists, “that's a really difficult measurement," Birner said.
To address this difficulty, the group developed a sophisticated technique to quantify the ratio of 4He against nitrogen gas (N2), which is both the most common element in the atmosphere and one with rather constant concentrations over time.
“Our technique not only eliminates the use of a rare isotope, which increases measurement precision, but it also adjusts the 4He abundance to N2,” said Birner. In 2015, he oversaw a study in Atmospheric Measurement Techniques that went further into the theoretical and technical breakthroughs of this revolutionary method.
“The ratio of 4He to N2 has been quite steady in the atmosphere, making 4He/N2 a good helium indicator. 3He/4He may change due to a numerical or denominational variation,” he explained.
The new method was used to analyze 46 air samples obtained between 1974 and 2020, resulting in a revised outlook of decades-long changes in atmospheric helium-4 levels. According to a new research, "helium-4 concentrations have risen dramatically over the last five decades," suggesting that the amount of helium-3 "significantly exceeds estimations of human emissions from natural gas, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power generation," implying potential concerns with previous isotope measurements or an incorrect evaluation of known sources.
“When we started, we weren't sure at all how large the atmospheric change in helium would be and if we would be able to measure it at all,” Birner said. “It took three years to create and perfect the analytical technique for 4He/N2, so when I made the first repeatable measurements, we were all very happy to see that hard work come to success. It was a shock to me later on when I compared our findings with prior research and realized their significance.”
“The inferred 3He change is more than 10 times the natural geological fluxes,” Birner clarified. “We know that 3He is formed as a result of tritium decay. Tritium was released during nuclear bomb tests conducted by humans, as well as current stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and it's quite possible to occur in some nuclear power stations. However, our estimates for these origins suggest that they can only account for around 10% of the inferred 3He increase. It's impossible to say where the rest comes from at this time.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan and Argonne National Laboratory want to find out whether there's a hidden supply of helium-3 on Earth. If they can extract enough helium-3 from it, Birner and his team will study its potential applications. Furthermore, by applying their new method to assessing the numerous anthropogenic greenhouse gases on Earth, the researchers aim to help us make decisions about our response to human-driven climate change.
“We may use helium to untie and verify the proportion of carbon emissions from natural gas vs. other sources such as coal or oil,” said Birner. “Scientists frequently utilize so-called "inversions" to estimate local to global CO2 emissions. You make inferences about how large the emissions of CO2 were by comparing observed levels of CO2 in different locations.
“If you only measure CO2 and don't consider helium, the inversion will tell you the CO2 flux, but we may also be able to determine what proportion of that CO2 came from natural gas combustion because helium is linked with natural gas yet not as much with other emission sources such as car traffic,” he concluded. “I'm currently working on improving the technique for detecting changes in helium concentration in San Diego. I am confident that precision will be good enough to identify daily local variations in helium levels with some more adjustments.”
The study, conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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