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XPRIZE wants technologies to convert carbon emissions into valuable resources

Turning harmful byproducts of power plants into something we can use

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The X Prize Foundation will pay $7.5 million to two research teams who can come up with the best ways to convert carbon dioxide into something useful, like biofuels or cements, the group said today. The money is the top prize for winning the organization's newly created $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition. The funds are meant as an incentive for people to invent technology that can turn concentrated carbon dioxide from power plants — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — into something that won’t harm the environment.

The competition is open to the public, will last four and a half years, and will have two tracks: one for converting CO2 from coal plants and one for converting CO2 from natural gas plants. Five finalist teams will be chosen for each track, who will then test their technologies at power plants in the United States and Canada. The winners for each track will receive $7.5 million each. All the finalist teams will receive $500,000 each for making it to the final round.

Turning CO2 from power plants into something that won't harm the environment

The X Prize Foundation is a non-profit founded in 1995 by Peter Diamandis; its goal is to sponsor competitions for technology meant to help address a major societal need. Among its other contests are technologies for cleaning up oil spills and — yes — a Star Trek tricorder that could help people diagnose their own health issues.

The foundation also aims to combat climate change — and rising carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide absorbs and traps heat, causing the Earth's temperatures to rise. Currently, the levels of carbon dioxide are at more than 400 parts per million in the world's atmosphere, nearly double the amount during the Industrial Revolution — and projections show the gas only becoming more widespread. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly a third of these greenhouse gasses come from power plants burning carbon-based fossil fuels, which is why the XPRIZE Foundation is aiming for the energy sector.

A natural gas power plant. (Mscalora / Wikimedia Commons)

This isn't the only effort to tackle CO2 coming from power plants. It comes on the heels of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, announced in August, which places new carbon emission standards on power plants in the US. And companies like Apple and Amazon are making the switch from carbon-based energy to renewable energy by using power generated by solar panels and wind turbines.

Those initiatives are a start, but around 82 percent of the global energy supply comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. And as more people populate the planet, our global energy demands are projected to grow — models suggest a 37 percent increase by 2040. That’s why X Prize wants to find a solution that will allow fossil fuel plants to continue operating at the same levels.

82 percent of the global energy supply comes from burning fossil fuels

The competition’s goal is to keep further carbon from the atmosphere without changing the current energy infrastructure, says Paul Bunje, senior director of oceans at the X Prize Foundation. Ideally, teams should create products from CO2 that are valuable enough to outweigh the cost of maintaining the technology needed for the conversion. Bunje isn’t picky about what the product of the conversion is; he suggested liquid biofuels or cements as possibilities. He also wondered if the carbon dioxide could be converted into more advanced, structural materials like graphene or carbon nanotubes. "We’re going to see some crazy new ideas that work, and some that don’t work so well," said Bunje.

Companies may be more motivated to convert CO2 if they can make a profit in the process, says Jon Christensen, an assistant professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, who isn’t involved with XPRIZE. Technology exists to prevent carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere, but it is usually pricey. "There are a number of different proposals for carbon sequestration out in the world, but they are too expensive to make them viable at this point," said Christensen. "People are motivated more by benefits and profits than they are by costs."

Christensen doesn't think the technology developed through competition will solve climate change alone. Rather, it will be used in combination with other technologies also aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions. "This kind of solution is one that we all eagerly hope for," said Christensen. "If we had that kind of solution it would be wonderful to add to the mix, because it’s going to take everything we’ve got to address global warming."