The final act of Oil takes place in 2051, in what Ella Hickson imagines of a post oil world. “Peak Oil” describes the point of maximum production of crude oil, after which global oil reserves will begin a terminal decline. Scientists agree that conventional oil peaked in 2005, but forecasts for nonconventional oil have shifted as new reserves are discovered and extraction technologies advance. Inevitably, other energy resources will need to be developed for the future. Oil’s depiction of nuclear fusion fueled by Helium-3 is not science fiction. China is engaged in R&D of harvesting Helium-3 from the moon. And Deuterium—which is referenced in Oil as a byproduct of the nuclear reaction— is being produced as a nuclear fuel at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
If you’re feeling nerdy, here is a little science behind what the characters are discussing in the final act of Oil. (Don’t forget: you have five more days to catch this production in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab before it closes this Sunday.)
The moon is now being referred to as the “Persian Gulf of the solar system” for thermonuclear energy, due to its massive quantities of Helium-3, an isotope of helium. He-3 is incredibly rare on Earth but has been found in extreme abundance on the moon. It’s a nonradioactive isotope with two protons and one neutron— one less neutron than standard helium. Nuclear fusion of He-3 atoms can be used to generate huge quantities of energy without causing harmful, radioactive byproducts.
China has launched a Helium-3 program that, according to Professor Ouyand Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), could “solve humanity’s energy demands for around 10,000 years at least.” The moon has an estimated one to five million tonnes of HE-3, compared to just 15 tonnes on Earth. It is also estimated that roughly 100 tonnes of helium-3 would be needed each year to supply global energy needs.
Deuterium or Hydrogen-2 (D or 2H) is a chemical isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus that is twice the mass of a normal hydrogen nucleus; it contains one proton and one neutron, instead of a single proton. Heavy Water contains two deuterium atoms and one oxygen atom (D2O or 2H2O).
Ultra-dense deuterium, which can be used as a kind of nuclear fuel, is “a hundred thousand times heavier than water and denser than the core of the Sun.” The hope is that this can one day be used commercially as a more sustainable and efficient alternative to the nuclear power of today. Huge quantities of energy can be created when high power lasers are used to fuse the nuclei of deuterium molecules.
Ultra-dense deuterium is currently being produced at the University of Gothenburg. Leif Holmlid, Professor in the Department of Chemistry, explains, “We believe that we can design the deuterium fusion such that it produces only helium and hydrogen as its products, both of which are completely non-hazardous. It will not be necessary to deal with the highly radioactive tritium that is planned for use in other types of future fusion reactors, and this means that laser-driven nuclear fusion as we envisage it will be both more sustainable and less damaging to the environment than other methods that are being developed.”