It could be arduous to recollect now — when Elon Musk is making headlines for trying a hostile takeover of Twitter — however a yr in the past, the Tesla CEO made waves within the local weather world when he introduced that he was donating $100 million to the XPRIZE Basis to run a competition for the best carbon removal solution. The grand prize received’t be awarded till 2025, however on Friday, the competition doled out $15 million of the prize purse to reward the 15 most promising contestants to date.
Although Musk’s motivation for donating the cash isn’t fully clear, the purpose of the competition is to catalyze innovation. The world has waited so lengthy to chop greenhouse gasoline emissions that scientists now say we’ll must phase out fossil fuels and actively remove carbon from the atmosphere to stabilize the local weather at a comparatively secure temperature. However the carbon removing methods that exist right this moment are extraordinarily restricted, small scale, and dear, and their effectiveness is tough to measure.
Musk’s authentic announcement on Twitter was met with snarky replies like “ever heard of timber?” However whereas timber can take away carbon from the air, they’re subject to fire and disease, they usually compete with different important makes use of for land, like housing and agriculture. Different potential options embrace machines that pull carbon immediately out of the air; strategies to boost soils’, crops’, and the ocean’s means to retailer carbon; and schemes to hurry the uptake of CO2 by sure sorts of rock.
“Each answer has a weak point,” mentioned Marcius Extavour, chief scientist and vp of local weather and surroundings at XPRIZE. “The winner of this competitors isn’t just the crew that may maximize its strengths, however the crew that may reduce its weaknesses,” he mentioned.
Finally, the profitable groups should show that they will take away 1,000 metric tons of CO2 from the ambiance per yr, that the carbon will keep out for at the least 100 years, and that they’ve a pathway to scaling as much as 1 million metric tons eliminated per yr. (The most conservative estimates say the world will finally must take away 1.5 to three billion metric tons of carbon per yr.)
However the 15 “milestone award” winners introduced on Friday merely needed to have a “nice thought,” mentioned Extavour, in addition to have the ability to show some key element of it and supply value estimates and life-cycle emissions information. Greater than 1,100 groups have utilized to the competition to date, and 287 met the standards for the milestone award. (XPRIZE is continuous to simply accept functions to compete for the grand prize.) XPRIZE requested expert reviewers from academia, nonprofits, and business to slim down the checklist to 60. Then the competition’s 12 official judges picked the winners.
The winners are engaged on a wide range of approaches throughout 4 classes: air, land, ocean, and rocks. Six groups are creating applied sciences to separate carbon dioxide immediately from the air. 4 plan to supply biochar, a charcoal-like substance created from crops that’s extraordinarily steady. Scientists imagine that turning sure crops into biochar and burying it in soil can sequester carbon for tons of to 1000’s of years. One other crew, International Algae Improvements, has pitched an thought to develop algae, which captures atmospheric carbon by way of photosynthesis, after which flip it right into a nonbiodegradable type of plastic that can be utilized to make surfboards, sneakers, and vehicles. Three others are engaged on ocean-based options that decrease the focus of CO2 in floor waters, which in flip can assist the ocean soak up extra CO2 from the ambiance.
A number of groups is perhaps acquainted to anybody who’s been following carbon removing information. Heirloom, an organization engaged on capturing CO2 immediately from the air, not too long ago made headlines after raising $53 million in venture capital. For the XPRIZE, Heirloom teamed up with an organization referred to as Carbfix, which makes a speciality of turning CO2 into stone. Carbfix is already demonstrating its know-how at a working carbon removal facility in Iceland.
The Heirloom and Carbfix challenge has a full cradle-to-grave plan to take away carbon from the ambiance and retailer it completely underground, however for among the winners, the plans marketed in publicly obtainable supplies are at the moment imprecise. Solely half of the groups within the “air” class appear to specify how and the place the carbon might be saved after it’s captured.
In different instances, the paradox could also be a symptom of how nascent the science is. Notably for ocean- and land-based options, which contain advanced biogeochemical dynamics, there aren’t but established strategies for measuring, reporting, and verifying how a lot carbon is being eliminated, elevating questions on how the competition will finally weigh these tasks.
For instance, the groups engaged on ocean-based options plan to both alter the chemistry of floor waters or stimulate seaweed progress, each of which may decrease the focus of CO2 within the water. However David Ho, a professor of oceanography on the College of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and one of many XPRIZE’s professional reviewers, mentioned it’s not sufficient to know the way a lot CO2 a challenge pulls out of the water. You additionally must measure how a lot CO2 the ocean then absorbs from the ambiance to switch it.
“I believe lots of people assume that it’s 100%, or they don’t even take into consideration that half,” he mentioned, “however that quantity is probably going rather a lot decrease.”
Ho mentioned he’s unsure anybody has an excellent course of for measuring that but, or for assessing how everlasting these types of carbon removing are, or how they have an effect on ocean ecosystems. He’s truly within the strategy of elevating cash to work on these points himself.
When requested if he thinks it is going to be potential to reply these questions by the point XPRIZE offers out its grand prize in 2025, Ho mentioned it is going to be tight. We would have the ability to measure the flux of CO2 for numerous ocean carbon removing approaches on a big scale, he mentioned, however it is going to be rather a lot tougher to do on the scale of 1 challenge.
Extavour was extra optimistic about XPRIZE’s means to confirm contestants’ outcomes. “It’s potential right this moment to do verification on any particular person carbon removing challenge. It is perhaps painful, however you are able to do it. At minimal, it’s a problem that we at XPRIZE have to unravel,” he mentioned. However he admitted that it’ll not be straightforward to scale up verification to the purpose required for these groups to show their carbon removing options into reputable companies. “Simply because you are able to do it as soon as doesn’t imply it’s a useful or scalable or value efficient validation methodology.”