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Is There a Perfect Fuel?

Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells look like they could bring us clear skies tomorrow, because we'd no longer have to worry about either CO2 emissions or an oil shortage. Major oil producers don't want to be left out, so they've developed a system that converts gasoline to hydrogen in order power a fuel-celled car. But if we start with oil, how will that change things?

Mark Baard writes in wired.com that one thing that won't change will be stops at our local gas station, because that's where we'll go to purchase a new fuel cell. This will save the cost of building special hydrogen fuel filling stations. But at least we won't have to stop in as often, since fuel cells last about 20 years. Also, we'll be able to hand in our old fuel cells to be recharged, just like we do with propane canisters now. Robert Oralbekov of PowerNova says, "We are solving the infrastructure and the environmental problems 100%?The big brothers, such as ExxonMobile and ChevronTexaco, should welcome this." While PowerNova will use gasoline as a reusable source to create the hydrogen, the gas will remain inside the cartridge permanently, so we'll use much less of it.

If hydrogen isn't the perfect fuel, then what is? Julie Wakefield writes in space.com that it may be helium 3, which is nonpolluting, with virtually no by-products. The problem: there's hardly any of it on Earth, but there's plenty of it on the moon.

"Helium 3 fusion energy may be the key to future space exploration and settlement," says researcher Gerald Kulcinski. There's enough helium 3 on the moon to power the Earth for thousands of years. A single space shuttle load of 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.

When the solar wind coming from the sun hits the moon, helium 3 is deposited in the powdery soil. It has built up over billions of years. "Helium 3 could be the cash crop for the moon," says Kulcinski. "When the moon becomes an independent country, it will have something to trade." But since both China and the U.S. want to claim it (the U.S. for the second time), that independence may never happen.

Apollo astronauts found helium 3 on the moon in 1969, but didn't realize it could be used for fuel until they talked to fusion engineers. "It took 15 years for us to stumble across each other," said Harrison Schmitt, the last astronaut to leave footprints on the moon.

Helium 3 fusion is a nuclear process but it produces far less radioactivity than current nuclear power plants. "You could safely build a helium 3 plant in the middle of a big city," Kulcinski says. Helium 3 is also ideal for powering spacecraft, since it's not heavy.

But will we ever be able to mine it? "Although helium 3 would be very exciting," says NASA's Bryan Palaszewski, "first we have to go back to the moon and be capable of doing significant operations there."

"It would be economically unfeasible," says Jim Benson of SpaceDev, a commercial space-exploration company. "Unless I'm mistaken, you'd have to strip-mine large surfaces of the moon."

"I don't doubt it will eventually work," Kulcinski says. "But I have serious doubts it will ever provide an economic power source on Earth or in space."

Here's what big oil companies have to learn to do: Make a hell of a profit and still go to heaven.

Photo credits: http://www.freeimages.co.uk/

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