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Pathfinders: Under the Ground and Over the Moon

ONE WAY for the capitalist class to prevent any future repetition of miners’ strikes, in any country, is the thrilling idea of not digging coal out of the ground but setting fire to it in situ and sucking the choking but exploitable gasses out through frackstyle L-shaped tubes (New Scientist, 15 February). Anti-frackers will probably be aghast at the idea of lighting the fires of hell under our collective feet, and there are all sorts of predictable questions about 1100 degrees of heat fracturing erstwhile impermeable layers and subsequent leaching of benzene and toluene into water boreholes, as happened at one UGC site in Queensland, Australia. But it’s worse than that. While fracking does at least offer one built-in environmental brownie-point in having only around 50 percent of coal’s carbon footprint, underground coal gasification (UCG) offers no such saving, and instead relies on the pious promise by extractive industries to invest in money-losing carbon capture and storage schemes (CCS). Enthusiastic capitalists on fire to cash in on a process offering a potential 1000 years of global energy say the giant subterranean ashtrays created by UGC are the perfect spot to stuff all that unwanted CO2, while the fabulous profits will easily pay for the required CCS pumping hardware. Conversely it won’t only be socialists who, understanding why industrial pollution exists in the first place, will easily foresee that the mining will happen because there’s money in it, but the CCS won’t because there isn’t. Humanity may have set its sights on a zero-carbon energy future, but as ever when capitalism gets a whiff of the filthy lucre, industry dashes off in the opposite direction.

With renewable energy as always in a sinkhole of unprofitability, what is the current state of play in nuclear fusion, that ultra-powerful and ultra-clean energy source that stubbornly refuses to exist in reality? Well, some good news there, as the National Ignition Facility in California has just announced a breakthrough with the first ever ‘fuel gain’ test, where 10 kilojoules of energy were put in and 15 kilojoules came out. But hold the champagne, because to run this test in the first place required an overall expenditure of 2 megajoules, meaning that overall net fuel gain is still orders of magnitude away. Part of the problem is the fact that fusion technology is currently based on heavy hydrogen. Hydrogen has just one charged proton, but its isotope deuterium carries an extra uncharged neutron, while tritium lugs about an extra two like an overloaded tourist.

Fuse the tourists together at sun temperatures and a barrage of uncontrollable neutron baggage fires off in all directions, destroying and irradiating everything in its path including the reactor walls. This means that a) fusion is not clean at all but creates highly radioactive building waste and b) most of this neutron heat hurricane is wasted in the conversion of water to steam to drive a turbine, just like a fission reactor.

For a long time fusion freaks have been talking about using a light isotope of helium instead. Helium-3 or 3He is heavy on spare protons rather than neutrons, so protons get fired off instead. Because protons carry a positive charge you can channel and direct them with magnets, like a flock of excitable sheep, but they also convert directly to electricity without the need to boil water for a turbine. The result is that a) they don’t burn your house down and b) they give an enormous increase in efficiency.

And the point of all this? The point is that there is hardly any 3He on Earth because being lighter than air it tends to float off into space, but there’s tons of it on the Moon, where there isn’t any air so it isn’t lighter than anything and therefore stays put. Like UGC, the estimated potential for global energy usage for lunar 3He is around 1000 years. Which is precisely why China has got a Jade Rabbit up there. It plans to strip mine the Moon.

On the face of it not much has changed since the last time the Standard covered the Great Moon Rush (see Material World, December 2008). China may have set, if not foot, then robotic wheel on the surface, but this feat is dismissed by carping critics who point out that this only places China 50 years behind the US and the Russians, and that the Chinese tech is all old Russian knock-off anyway. Still less impressive that after two weeks in the freezing lunar dark the poor Rabbit emerged into the solar glare to stand transfixed with barely a pulse flickering.

But there is a key difference today, because water-ice has been found at the poles, buried in deep and permanently dark craters. A human requires around 2 litres of water a day, and with the cost of lifting water from Earth at around $25,000 a litre, even with intensive recycling of every last sweat globule a manned moonbase looked out of the question. Not anymore. With that discovery, strip-mining of the Earth’s ‘seventh continent’ is finally becoming feasible. Being pragmatic about such things as all capitalists are, China wouldn’t pay too much for labour, but would send Tibetans, or convicts, so don’t be surprised if future miners’ strikes take place on the Moon.

Still, it’s early days. The Moon Rush is at present more of a stroll. Budget-strapped NASA is in cahoots with private firms to get back in on the act, but private capitalists have to date shown less than cosmic  achievement. The $20m Google Lunar XPrize for the first privately-funded rover on the Moon, which blasted off in 2007 with much media fanfare, has so far not paid out so much as a bus fare, even though the deadline has been repeatedly extended. There is some debate about revising the terms of the various Space Treaties, according to which common ownership somehow exists in space, in order to allow private ownership to intrude into this absurd and uncapitalist anomaly. But the debate is civilised at the moment because nobody is in a position to stake much of a claim, and besides everyone knows that these treaties are mostly unsigned anyway and worth about as much as the Kyoto Agreement. The main legacy of Jade Rabbit thus far has been, rather like with the US Apollo missions and the Soviets, that China is winning its regional pissing contest with Japan. But the Japanese aren’t taking this lying down, and plan with an appropriate sense of bushido to have their own rover on the Moon by 2017.

It’s a curious fact that the glassy regolith dust on the Moon’s surface smells like gunpowder, and there may come a time when Earth goes to war over this rock, perhaps for the platinum group metals expected in concentrations in the dark ‘sea’ areas you can easily see with the naked eye. An even more distant possibility is that mining won’t stop at the Moon, but that it becomes a fuelling station on the way to the other planets and the moons of the gas giants.

One thing is beyond reasonable doubt. Were it not for the fact that the stars are permanently out of reach by any conceivable technology, the capitalists’ eyes would be fixed greedily on the entire cosmos. For many people, forced to the realisation that there is literally nothing in heaven or earth that capitalism would not rob and rape and destroy, a space-age future without socialist sharing and collective resource management will be a prospect as chilling as the lunar night.