'Puzzling' Abundance of 'Scarce Resource for Nuclear Reactors' Found on Earth, Study Says
An apparent increase of helium-3 in the atmosphere detected by researchers was reportedly described by the lead of a study as “puzzling”, as the team does not have “a good explanation” for the source of that isotope yet.
Helium-3 (3He), a rare isotope of helium which could potentially be exploited as an energy source in the future, can be found on our planet in a greater quantity than was previously believed, new study suggests.
Led by Benjamin Birner, a postdoctoral scholar in geosciences at the University of California San Diego, the team that conducted the research in question arrived at these conclusions while measuring the overall increase in anthropogenic helium emissions that arises from fossil fuel consumption, according to Vice’s Motherboard.
As Birner explained to the media outlet in an email, while they only measured the change in atmospheric helium-4 (4He) – a much more common isotope of helium – "previous work by other researchers indicates that the helium isotopic ratio of the atmosphere (3He/4He) is roughly stable".
"Together these observations imply an increase in atmospheric 3He that matches the rise in 4He or we would see a change in the atmospheric isotope ratio", he added.
Birner also observed that this increase in helium-3 is "quite puzzling", as the team does not have "a good explanation for the source of this 3He so far".
"It's quite an important puzzle to solve also because 3He is an important and scarce resource for nuclear fusion reactors", the researcher elaborated. "Based on the reported uncertainties in previous studies of the atmospheric 3He/4He trend, the buildup of 3He looks significant, but our study clearly motivates a closer look at the atmospheric 3He/4He trend".
The new research, published in Nature Geosciences this week, postulates that "the inferred rise in atmospheric helium-3 greatly exceeds estimates of anthropogenic emissions from natural gas, nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation", which may imply "potential problems with previous isotope measurements or an incorrect assessment of known sources".
9 February 2022, 16:44 GMT
As the media outlet points out, helium-3 could eventually be used as an energy source for fusion reactors of the future, which would generate large amounts of power while producing small quantities of waste and radiation in the process, although such reactors are yet to be developed.
The apparent scarcity of helium-3 on Earth, however, would make such a scheme somewhat difficult to accomplish, although this helium isotope is believed to be far more abundant on the Moon.