$20 million XPRIZE available for whoever can turn carbon emissions into the most useful stuff

  • Electricity generation and industry are two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in the US.
  • $20 million Carbon XPRIZE was launched yesterday at Fortune’s BrainstormE conference in Austin, TX.
  • There are already numerous ventures out there hoping to turn a profit by turning captured carbon emissions into everyday products.

There’s $20 million to be had by anyone in the world who can tackle one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity today — what to do about the enormous amounts of carbon we’re dumping into our atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy.

The Carbon XPRIZE was launched yesterday at Fortune’s BrainstormE conference in Austin, TX — but it’s not a competition that aims to spur innovation in efficiency measures or renewable energy, as you might expect.

According to a statement announcing the competition, XPRIZE is hoping to encourage the development of technologies for converting CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into useful things like building materials and alternative fuels.

Electricity generation and industry are two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution, together responsible for more than half of CO2 emissions generated in the US every year, according to the EPA.

For many years, the preferred approach for keeping CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere as we develop clean forms of energy to replace fossil fuels was carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), in which carbon is separated from other pollutants coming out of smokestacks and then liquefied before being pumped into underground geologic formations.

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The 5,400 MW Bełchatów Power Station in Poland, one of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

But CCS proved incredibly costly, and there was simply no incentive for anyone to actually implement it at industrial scale. Even the Obama Administration, with its “all of the above” energy strategy, walked away from a major project aimed at demonstrating the commercial viability of the technology.

Making valuable products out of those carbon emissions, on the other hand, can provide plenty of incentive — or at least that’s what XPRIZE and its corporate sponsors are expecting.

There are already numerous ventures out there hoping to turn a profit by turning captured carbon emissions into everyday products like bleach and baking soda as well as polymers used in a wide range of consumer products, such as shoes, furniture and textiles.

“We know that CO2 emissions contribute to climate change so we’re continually working to improve our environmental performance in the oil sands,” Dan Wicklum, CEO of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a sponsor of the Carbon XPRIZE, said in a statement.

“This competition will be a catalyst to accelerate our progress towards a cleaner global energy future by converting CO2 emissions into valuable products. A team may win the money, but our energy future will win the prize.”

According to the announcement, XPRIZE will appoint a panel of judges to evaluate the technologies and approaches submitted by teams participating in the competition. The winners will be announced in March of 2020.

This isn’t the first XPRIZE aimed at solving a critical environmental issue. In the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, the Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE was launched to spur innovation in technologies for cleaning up offshore oil spills. XPRIZE has also awarded $10 million to three super-fuel-efficient carmakers.

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