Dr. Aaron Olson Brings Affordable Electricity to
Bringing Light to the Congo
|Dr. Aaron Olson recently earned his Ph.D. in
engineering mechanics from UW-Madison this past fall.
difference in using something like helium3 for a nuclear reactor would be you would be using fusion instead of fission. You would be fusing very light particles like
hydrogen with helium3 to be able to produce energy. Instead of having that come out by way of heat, that creates steam, that energy could be directly converted from
charged particles that are a part of that process. You basically get a bunch of fast particles that can be transferred into electricity instead of having to create heat to
do the same thing. The main thrust of why our institute, the Fusion Technology Institute, was interested in that is for terrestrial power. The idea is sometime in the
future, the U.S., a private entity or someone could go and collect the material on the surface of the moon, bring it back to Earth to be able to produce clean nuclear
But since the U.S. hasn’t landed on the Moon since 1972, how does one get moon rocks or soil, called regolith, from which to extract helium3? Well you’ve got to
make your own.
“I had to create a device called the Solar Wind Implanter,” Olson said. “The rationale behind that is the helium3 that is in the lunar soil in the first place actually
comes from the solar wind. The Soil Wind Implanter basically did what the solar wind does, shoot particles of helium3 into the soil. We ended up doing that with
electrostatic grids. Basically we set up pairs of cathodes and anodes. We did all of this within a vacuum chamber. We would fill the vacuum chamber up with helium
and then we would set a difference in voltage between the cathode and anode pair, so that the anode would be grounded and the cathode would be set at about
negative eight kilovolts. That would create an acceleration field. The helium that was outside of those grids would get ionized and then shot into a falling stream of
material that was in between the parallel sets of grids.”
Now that Olson had simulated lunar soil with helium3 infused into it, he then had to devise a way to extract it again in an energy efficient way.
“The idea was to build the system to demonstrate a way of extracting helium3 out of regolith,” Olson said. “Kennedy Space Center and NASA basically supported the
project through the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship Program. Dr. James Mantovani at Kennedy was the main collaborator for the project. We ended up
getting material that is an analog, if you will, of regolith from the surface of the moon called simula. The particular type that we had was called JSC1A, Johnson Space
Center 1 Simula. It’s basically material ground up to the same size distribution as lunar soil. It’s very useful in figuring out how that stuff moves around in different
devices and how gases can be extracted from it. What I did basically is construct a device. It was called the Helium Extraction Acquisition Test Bed or HEAT for
short. The idea for the device was to heat up the soil to a point where helium3 and other gases that would be in lunar soil would come out and we could test how
effectively we were doing that and how much energy was required and so forth.”
The idea of using nuclear fusion is almost an idea straight out of science fiction stories of days gone by. But once the technology is developed, the implications are
“This sort of thing could become a reality in the late 2020s or early 2030s, where you could see a technology like this, a plant with this sort of technology being built,”
Olson said. “It could play a role in the replacement of fossil fuels as a fuel. I think renewable energy and clean nuclear energy could be a nice combination in filling
out the world’s energy portfolio. On top of halting climate change and all of that, the ability to create clean nuclear power in space could also have applications for
propulsion, being able to get to other locations in space a lot faster than what we currently do. You could think of a set of nine-month missions to go to Mars. You
could have missions that take only 2-3 months using this sort of technology. And the fraction of the vehicle that is actually usable payload would be a lot higher.
Science fiction allows humankind to dream for the future. And it is scientists like Dr. Aaron Olson who help those dreams become a reality.
Part 2 0f 2
By Jonathan Gramling
For almost the past decade, Aaron Olson who recently received his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics
from UW-Madison, has been pursuing his dreams about space, working on a Mars Desert Research
Station Program on his way to obtaining his master’s degree and then on an experimental program to
extract helium3 out of lunar soil for his Ph.D.
Helium3 isn’t an element that exists on the Earth, but it does exist on the Moon due to the Moon’s
exposure to solar winds and space debris. And why is it so important to produce helium3?
“Helium3 could be used to produce power in future nuclear reactors that would produce power without
any radioactive waste,” Olson said. “That’s the interest in having that material. Right now, everything
that we use to create power through nuclear processes is done by nuclear fission. Isotopes or
elements like plutonium or uranium are used. Basically you are breaking down these very large
elements to be able to get neutrons that heat up water. That water is then used in steam generators,
which function very similarly to how people create electricity all across the world today. The