$20 Million Prize Aims To Get Contestants To Turn Carbon Pollution To Something Useful

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Carbon pollution from power plants is a big problem — when power plants burn fossil fuels, they increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in turn driving global climate change. And while new domestic policies and international negotiations are doing their best to curb the amount of carbon emitted from coal and natural gas-fired power plants, global energy demands are expected to grow 37 percent by 2040, with three quarters of that demand supplied by oil, gas, and coal. In short, the problem of carbon pollution from power plants isn’t set to disappear anytime soon.

Some might look at that problem and feel discouraged. XPrize Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing about breakthroughs that benefit humanity, looked at the problem of carbon solution and saw an opportunity.

“Some of the biggest problems out there often require new ideas, but they also require the incentive to act,” Paul Bunje, principal and senior scientist for energy and environment at XPrize, told ThinkProgress. “Environmental challenges are among the planet’s greatest grand challenges. We look at it through a lens of the idea that we can solve this problem.”

To solve the problem of carbon pollution, XPrize is teaming up with two big players from the energy industry — the U.S.-based NRG and Canada’s Oil Sands Industry Alliance (COSIA) — to fund a competition aimed at incentivizing the creation of technology that turns carbon emissions into a useable product, be it building materials, cement, plastic, or some other manifestation. The competition, which is open to expert scientists and novices alike, will last four and a half years and offer participants two tracks — one that makes the most of CO2 pollution from coal plants, and the other from gas plants. In the end, the winning teams will be awarded $10 million each — a $20 million total that Bunje hopes will inspire meaningful change in the world.

“We’ll get the solution to converting CO2 into a usable product,” Bunje said. “But at the same time, you can imagine this would help inspire others to think about other solutions to other parts of the problem.”

Bunje said that XPrize first got the idea for a competition based on the problem of carbon pollution while working on a previous competition, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize, which was awarded this July. That competition offered $2 million to whichever group could most successfully develop sensors that measure ocean acidification — the lowering of ocean pH that occurs when the ocean absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. The winning group — Sunburst Sensors, a small company from Montana — was able to develop a relatively cheap sensor that could detect ocean acidification at extreme depths. Burke Hales, a chemical oceanographer from Oregon State University, told ThinkProgress that the invention was a “step forward” for the industry, making ocean acidification sensors more affordable, and therefore more readily available, to researchers everywhere.

In attempting to combat ocean acidification, however, Bunje said that XPrize kept stumbling on a larger issue: the carbon pollution that was ultimately driving the acidification of the world’s oceans.

“What do you do about the ultimate cause of ocean acidification, the excess CO2 in the atmosphere?” Bunje asked.

So XPrize — along with two industry backers — decided to take a slightly novel approach to carbon dioxide emissions. What if, instead of treating excess carbon dioxide as a waste product, it was treated like a raw material?

“We’re going to flip it on its head and incentivize people to turn CO2 into something they can sell,” Bunje said.

Capturing the carbon dioxide produced by power plants isn’t a new idea — some scientists have championed carbon capture and storage (CCS), which takes carbon pollution from power plants and pumps it into underground storage, as a necessary part of any climate change solution. But there are also numerous issues with CCS, including financial and technological barriers, challenges of scale, and the potential for earthquakes caused by pumping carbon underground. And some companies are already trying to make products out of carbon pollution, from plastics to building materials to major chemicals. But Bunje hopes that the contest will push innovators to approach the problem of carbon pollution in new ways, helping to make the materials cheaper, the products easier to make, or the technology more accessible.

“When we talk about what’s possible, we’re looking at what is on the edge of that horizon,” Bunje said. “With respect to environmental issues and things like CO2 and climate change, what you’re looking at is a whole bunch of reasons that too much CO2 is being emitted into the atmosphere. We can tackle those things, and XPrize is here to incentivize new players, as well as old players, to take their best shot.”

The competition’s source of funding — from companies that make their money burning fossil fuels — might raise some eyebrows, though turning carbon emissions into a usable product makes sense for businesses looking to profit off of something that is otherwise considered a waste product at best and a liability at worst.

“It’s a way of harnessing a global set of innovators to re-imagine carbon and change it from a liability into a resource, change it from a waste into a usable, valuable product,” COSIA’s chief executive Dan Wicklum said in a video statement after the contest was announced.

Ostensibly, turning carbon emissions into a usable product could also help fossil fuel industries sidestep regulations that treat carbon emissions like a pollutant.

The contest has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism by some climate scientists, who argue that the relatively unproven and expensive technology of carbon capture isn’t as effective as transitioning to a renewable-heaby, carbon-free energy system.

“Frankly, I’m skeptical that with the combined cost of carbon capture and manufacturing, such technologies could compete in a level marketplace with other carbon-friendly (i.e. renewable) energy technologies, but the challenge is a welcome one,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University told Climate Central.

But Bunje argues that a global problem like carbon pollution requires a diverse approach, and that turning carbon into a usable product could be one tool in the arsenal of possible solutions.

“A grand challenge, be it poverty or climate change, is rarely a single problem,” Bunje said. “The more we can inspire — that’s where the real impact comes from.”