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Elon Musk puts up $100M reward for capturing carbon

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.

Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.

Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.

In today’s news release, Musk said XPRIZE Carbon Removal “is not a theoretical competition.”

“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”

The XPRIZE Carbon Removal program is the latest in a series of multimillion-dollar competitions targeting technological frontiers ranging from super-efficient automobiles to private-sector spaceflight. This one’s the richest XPRIZE in the 27-year-old foundation’s history.

“We hope this XPRIZE will activate the public and private sectors to get involved in the same way that the $10 million Ansari X Prize brought about the commercial spaceflight industry,” said Peter Diamandis, founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE.

The size of the prize may be unprecedented, but this competition capitalizes on past precedents in other respects.

XPRIZE is already running a $20 million competition focusing on technologies that convert carbon into consumer products, with 10 teams vying for the grand prize. (Vodka, hand sanitizer and toothpaste are among the converted-CO2 products in the running.)

Another precedent can be found in the $10 million Global Education XPRIZE, which had Musk’s backing in 2019.

Registration for XPRIZE Carbon Removal won’t open until Earth Day on April 22, when the full competition guidelines will be released. But the rough outlines of the competition’s rules and timeline were laid out in today’s announcement.

Teams will have until the fall of 2022 to develop detailed proposals for their carbon-removal systems. Judges will award $1 million in Milestone Awards to each of 15 top teams, to help them kickstart the process of raising funds for their full-scale demonstrations.

In addition, 25 scholarships, amounting to $200,000 each, will be distributed to student teams in the competition.

“We are expecting a huge array and diversity of teams from around the world to register and compete,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said.

“What’s beautiful about an XPRIZE competition is the diversity of approaches taken by the teams,” she said. “This is a great fit for carbon removal, because there are so many ways to pull CO2 out of the air and our oceans. We expect to see approaches like engineered direct air capture, mineralization and enhanced weathering, natural solutions based on plants, trees, or ocean-focused solutions.”

Yes, it’s theoretically possible to win the prize by planting trees. But the winners will have to show that their demonstration system can remove at least 1 ton of carbon per day, can be scaled up to the gigaton level, can beat the other teams on the cost per ton for carbon removal, and can sequester the removed carbon for at least 100 years.

For what it’s worth, scientists say a mature tree can remove about 48 pounds of carbon per year. At that rate, it would take 16,775 trees spread out over 100 acres to remove a single metric ton of carbon per day. That’s not easily scalable to the gigaton level.

“It turns out trees alone aren’t enough,” said Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE executive director for prize operations, energy and resources.

At the end of the competition, in 2025, judges will award $50 million to the grand-prize winner,  $20 million to the runner-up and $10 million to the third-place team.

Musk’s sponsorship of a carbon-removal competition is in line with his long-held views on climate policy. In addition to founding SpaceX, Musk is the CEO of Tesla, which focuses on electric cars as well as solar power systems. He also supports the creation of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which he has compared to garbage collection fees.

In a tweet, Musk said the technologies that come out of the XPRIZE competition are likely to be out of this world. “This is intended for Earth, but there may be some ideas that apply to Mars too,” he wrote.

The World Resources Institute, which has analyzed the various methods for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, greeted news of the $100 million competition with great interest.

“I can broadly say we are in favor of private and public sector investment in technological carbon removal to help spur innovation and R&D,” Carrie Dellesky, WRI’s engagement and communications manager for carbon removal, told me in an email.

Dellesky pointed out that Musk isn’t the only billionaire supporting cutting-edge technologies aimed at countering climate change. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which is led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and counts Amazon’s Jeff Bezos among its supporters, announced last month that it’s raising another $1 billion to back carbon-reducing technologies — including direct air capture.

Update for 9:20 a.m. PT Feb. 10: Katie Lebling, the World Resources Institute’s expert on technological carbon dioxide removal methods, or CDR, sent along a more detailed response to the XPRIZE plan:

“I would say that any incentive to spur development of new CDR technologies is great, but a prize like this cannot be a substitute for good and durable public policy that also incentivizes development and scale-up (especially deployment of approaches we already know exist, like restoration). It should rather be a complement to more ‘traditional’ types of policy support (for example, this can help with the development, but would not support deployment, and depending on what they determine to be ‘cost effective,’ that could still be too high for operators without other types of support).

“This could be a way to drive private investment, but (just thinking out loud) it would be ideal if there is some way to make sure the learnings from all of this investment are shareable, or the process provides some amount of transparency so that the wider community can benefit from the lessons learned.

“I would also be curious if they will only consider entirely ‘new’ technologies or improvements on existing approaches (what about restoration/reforestation)? How they define cost-effective? Whether they consider social and ecological safeguards in their assessment of viability? Who will be judging? Are there stipulations as to how the winning $ should be used (i.e., devote to scaling up the winning technology)?”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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