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The $100 Million Race to Capture Carbon

The $100 Million Race to Capture Carbon

In early 2021, Elon Musk announced he would be donating $100 million to carbon capture technology. No further details were given for months, other than the fact that this would be a donation from the Musk Foundation in partnership with the X Prize Foundation.

The XPrize runs competitions to find the best solutions for complex problems affecting the world. So far they have given prizes to innovators working on carbon utilization, fuel-efficiency, ocean health, and more! They've given more than $290 million in cumulative prize purses thus far. Their four-year competition for carbon capture has the largest prize, not only in XPrize's history, but the largest prize in human history. The goal is simple: find carbon capture solutions that can scale to the gigatonne level in time (and at a cost low enough) to meet global needs. The competition can be any idea in any area, as long as it follows the rules.

The Rules

To quote Elon, "everything works on PowerPoint." In order to capture the $50 million grand-prize, or even any of the other prizes, your solution needs to actually work. To prove this, over the course of the competition (that runs from Earth Day 2021 to Earth Day 2025), your team needs to capture 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the carbon has to be sequestered for at least 100 years. Taking CO2 out of the atmosphere for just a few years defeats the purpose: the point of carbon capture is to decrease the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can't be done if it's going right back into the atmosphere.

It's important to also factor in any carbon dioxide you're releasing during the process. For example, if a team is pursuing direct air capture (DAC), most DAC processes require heating up solvents to get pure CO2. If you're burning natural gas to get that heat, you have to make sure that your DAC process is capturing more carbon dioxide than it is releasing. The cure cannot be worse than the disease.

The fundamental metric that will be measured over the course of the competition is the cost per tonne of carbon dioxide captured and sequestered at a gigatonne scale. If your solution doesn't work on a gigatonne scale, you aren't winning anything. But if your solution is technologically feasible, the way to ensure it is economically feasible is measuring the cost per tonne. The goal of many existing carbon capture companies is to drop their cost below $100/tonne, as that would be a small enough portion of global GDP to where humanity could realistically foot the bill of carbon capture without having to take away from other priorities like healthcare and social welfare programs.

The race is already on! On February 1st, 2022, teams will be showing their demonstrations of their prototyped technology. The best 15 teams will all receive $1 million in funding on Earth Day 2022, which will help a whole lot in getting to the 1000 tonne/year capture needed by February 1, 2024. So if you have an idea, get moving! If you want to join a team, check out Bluski and our mission to capture carbon dioxide, win the XPrize, and lead the world in reversing climate change.

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Will Hessert

CEO of Bluski