The Ultimate Smuggling Cargo?

One thought experiment I like to engage in to pass the time is to think about what would enable people to remove their wealth from the grasp of greedy despots. In the current markets it seems like the best candidates are diamonds and various kinds of drugs, with heroin being #1.

I've thought of all sorts of other candidates, with my favorites being digital, for example information that is represented as a quantum state, which is uncopiable, or digital cash, which might eventually take off but seems like it might need a large institutional trusted third party. Peer to peer digital cash schemes are interesting, but I haven't thought of a good one yet.

Precious metals, being metallic, are fairly easy to detect in luggage or in people, unlike precious gems. They also don't have the value density of precious gems. Buying or selling large quantities of either also incurs large enough transaction costs that I don't think most people would say they make it "easy" to move wealth around without getting caught, meaning it's mostly "bad people" who use such things.

It seems to me that whether you're talking about a hydrogen economy or a zinc economy or a hydrocarbon economy, the future economy is likely to revolve around energy even more than it does today. So mechanisms for storing and transporting large quantities of energy in a very small space and mass are potential candidates for smuggling. An ideal candidate would be Robert Heinlein's Shipstones, which are basically batteries with the energy density of a nuclear reactor, but nobody has discovered such a thing yet so they remain in the realm of SF. In the real world, however, there is a process called aneutronic fusion that if it ever becomes practical will enable the use of a fuel whose energy density would make Shipstones look like firewood by comparison.

A gram of helium-3 (3He) fusing with 2/3 gram of deuterium produces as much energy in protons as is in about 180 barrels of oil, and no neutrons (actually there are side-fusions that would produce neutrons if you just heat up a mixture of the two in confinement, but the amount of energy in those neutrons is relatively small). If this process can ever be made practical, 3He could potentially have a market price at least in the multiple thousands of USD per gram in today's dollars; it would likely be far more initially because it would be used in specialized applications like interplanetary travel, but I'm trying to look to the time when it would be a commodity. Deuterium's price would go up as well (it's practically free now by comparison), but deuterium is far more common than 3He due to an interesting quirk of stellar evolution that results in about 1/10 of the amount of 3He in the universe that one would expect based on older models of low-mass stars.

Even if the best case scenario comes to pass regarding helium-3 in my lifetime, it's not clear that random people will be able to buy some on the street and smuggle it out of their country, however. A peer to peer digital cash scheme is probably more likely, but it's interesting to think about it anyway. At the very least 3He could replace diamonds and heroin in the transportation of wealth even if it doesn't make it easier for the rest of us. And of course the very rarity of 3He may mean that aneutronic fusion will be impractical on a large scale during my lifetime, and there may not be enough of it to smuggle, or sources of it will be tightly controlled, though it's a by-product of tritium decay and tritium isn't that hard to get.

Anyway, this post isn't about helium-3 even though I went into way too much detail about it. I'd really like to get more people thinking about ways to allow the masses to hide their wealth from the kleptocrats. What other emerging technologies might enable this?

Share this