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Carbon XPRIZE winners capitalize on concrete

More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.

The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.

Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.

Canada’s CarbonCure Technologies demonstrated how carbon dioxide emissions from a gas-fired power plant in Alberta could be injected into a concrete plant’s reclaimer system, where the CO2 is turned into minerals that are embedded in concrete.

The reclaimer system required less freshwater, generated less solid waste and turned out stronger concrete mixes.

“I’m incredibly proud of Team CarbonCure’s hard work, dedication and ingenuity that contributed to our win,” CarbonCure President Jennifer Wagner said in a news release.

CarbonCure has already attracted investments from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, among others. Wagner said the $7.5 million share of the XPRIZE purse “will accelerate our path to achieve our company mission of reducing 500 megatons of CO2 emissions annually by 2030.”

The other $7.5 million grand prize went to UCLA CarbonBuilt, which has developed a different technology for sequestering carbon. CO2 emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Wyoming were directly injected from flue gas streams into a concrete mixture. CarbonBuilt’s chemical process captured the carbon as a binding agent in the concrete — reducing the requirements for Portland cement.

CarbonBuilt’s process can reduce the carbon footprint for concrete production by more than 50 percent. Gaurav N. Sant, who’s the director of the UCLA Institute for Carbon Management and founder of CarbonBuilt Inc, said winning one of the XPRIZE contest’s top prizes was “an ultimate dream come true.”

Two of the competition’s eight other finalists won X-Factor awards: Carbon Upcycling-NLT converts carbon dioxide into nanoparticles with potential applications in various industries, including concrete, construction and plastics. Carbon Corp. turns CO2 into carbon nanotubes for construction materials, batteries and nanoelectronics.

The Carbon XPRIZE competition was backed by NRG, one of America’s leading integrated power companies; and COSIA, also known as Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

In February, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk committed $100 million in prize money for another carbon-cutting contest. XPRIZE Carbon Removal focuses on technologies that would eventually be capable of removing gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually.

For more than a quarter-century, XPRIZE has been organizing sponsored competitions that focus on technological frontiers such as private-sector spaceflight, super-efficient cars, medical diagnostic devices and open-source educational software.

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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