​The Next $20 Million XPrize Will Go to the Machine that Turns Carbon Into Cash

Whichever machine can suck the most carbon out of a power plant and turn it into the most valuable commodity, wins.

Sep 29 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Carbon Engineering. Screenshot / YouTube

The next $20 million XPrize will be awarded to whomever can master technology that transforms carbon emissions from a planet-warming pollutant into a salable commodity. XPrize, the nonprofit whose chief aim is "to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," and whose past innovation contests have included a $30 million program to put a privately funded robot on the moon, is turning to the energy space.

"Obviously, carbon emissions are driving climate change," Paul Bunje, XPrize's principal and senior scientist on energy and environment, told me. "Winning teams are going to have to take those emissions right out of fossil fuel plants and turn it into a usable product." This go around, the aim is to solicit technology that will accomplish two feats simultaneously: a) suck carbon out of the air and b) use that carbon to produce a useful, viable good. "This is the second largest purse we've ever offered," he said.

It's an opportune moment for such an undertaking. The effort to remove carbon from our skies—or directly from polluting gas or coal-fired power plants—has never drawn more attention, as scientists desperately scan for ways to reduce the saturation of CO2 in our warming atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), as it's called in geoengineering circles, is only becoming of greater interest to engineers, activists, and corporations.

You might have heard talk of artificial trees, carbon-sucking turbines, and algae tanks—this Carbon XPrize aims to accelerate the quest to build a solution that's both powerful and economical. To win, entrants must design and eventually build technology that siphons carbon directly from the emissions outflow of a power plant and transforms it into something useful, on-site.

The end product could be anything—cement, carbon nanofibers, fuels, diamonds, baking soda. "Somebody's going to try to make baking soda," Bunje said, "I don't know how they'll make it profitable, but somebody's going to try it." That's the other stipulation—the invention must be profitable, and, eventually, a good investment for companies who might want to take advantage of what is currently considered a waste stream and untapped resource.

XPrize Carbon is a collaboration with the American energy company NRG and the Canadian "oil sands innovation alliance" Cosia, two fossil fuel-heavy concerns with an interest in reducing emissions—and, of course earning some positive PR. To be fair, while NRG burns its fair share of coal, it has in recent years made strides in the clean energy arena, too. The Canadian oil sands, however, rank among the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive projects on the planet. As such, this XPrize will likely field criticisms of helping to sustain fossil fuel operations it would be ideal to shut down altogether.

"We are living in an age of unprecedented technological progress and prosperity driven by energy," Peter Diamandis, the chairman and CEO of XPrize said in a statement. "Yet, most of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, a leading contributor to climate change. We are embarking on one urgent step in XPrize's energy roadmap of incentivizing a clean and positive energy future."

Innovations will be judged according to two criteria: total CO2 removed and the value of the product created. Whichever device pulls the most CO2 out of the plant while creating the most valuable product, wins. The innovations will be tested at one of two real-life power plants; one's in Canada, one's here in the US—one's coal, one's natural gas.

Bunje expects the process to take a total of five years—there will be a six month registration period, beginning today, then four and a half years of development. The geoengineering research proponent and CDR entrepreneur David Keith advised during the design process, and XPrize expects a wide variety of entrants, largely university research teams and startups.

"As with any Prize it's open to any innovator," Bunje said. "But you have to prove you can do something impressive."