Elon Musk’s $ 100 million prize is for technology the world desperately needs

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Elon Musk said he would release details of the price next week.

Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, donates $ 100 million for an award for “Best Carbon Capture Technology”.

Carbon capture is in fact a broad mix of technologies with the same goal: to collect carbon dioxide so it doesn’t escape into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. The greenhouse gas can be obtained from power plants and factories or even directly from the air.

Musk, Tesla Inc., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. head said he would release details of the price next week. However, his earlier statements suggest that one of his main goals is to lower the price of direct carbon capture in the air so that it can be used to make synthetic rocket fuel that replaces the fossil fuels currently in use.

In 2017, he said, “There’s no way you can make an electric missile. I wish there were. But in the long run, you can use solar energy to extract CO₂ from the atmosphere, combine it with water, and produce fuel and oxygen for that Missile. “He brought up the idea again in 2019 when responding to a question on Twitter about using carbon capture to make rocket fuel, saying,” Missile flights will be zero net carbon in the long run. “

What Musk is describing is not science fiction. There are at least three startups – Canada’s Carbon Engineering, Swiss Climeworks, and the US Global Thermostat – that have each built working pilot systems to capture carbon dioxide from the air. Carbon Engineering even made a small amount of synthetic fuel from CO₂.

Science itself is not new. For around a century, researchers have been able to use chemical reactions to convert CO₂ into hydrocarbon fuels. The difficulty was cutting the cost of the process and figuring out how to get it clean energy. Since CO₂ is the end product of burning fossil fuels, reversing the process requires enormous amounts of energy.

While capturing carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-burning plants is not trivial, large amounts of the gas must be filtered for a tiny volume of CO₂ to suck it out of the air, where gas concentrations are very low. The three companies with pilot plants spent tens of millions of dollars to get to this stage, and there is still a long way to go. The cost of securing a ton of carbon through direct air capture can be up to $ 600 – roughly 15 times the price of carbon traded on the European market.

There are two ways to reduce costs. The first is to solve the problem of scaling in real time – building large plants costing hundreds of millions of dollars to give engineers the ability to optimize the process through trial and error. Carbon Engineering currently works with Occidental Petroleum Corp. together to build a facility that can capture 1 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

The second, possibly cheaper, way is to increase the pace of innovation. Governments can increase funding for research and development. Or billionaires can start attention-grabbing competitions. With an award, “You induce activities where there is an opportunity,” said Tris Dyson, executive director of Nesta Challenges, a not-for-profit organization focused on innovation in the UK.

It’s a strategy that has been around for centuries and has worked in the past. The Longitude Rewards were a series of awards launched by the British Government in 1714 to develop practical methods of determining the exact length of a ship at sea. The reward hurt the innovators’ entrepreneurship, and attendees often spent more money developing the technology than the prize pool itself.

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In a way, the exercise relies on irrational behaviors to get a beneficial result, Dyson said. “It’s in the nature of entrepreneurs and innovators,” he said. “They are very optimistic beings.”

Musk’s $ 100 million will likely result in multiples of that amount being invested in developing carbon capture technology. This is something the room desperately needs. Climate models show that some form of negative emissions technology will be required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and there is a limit to the number of forests that can be planted to absorb CO₂ naturally.

“Air is practically an infinite reservoir of CO₂,” said Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage at the University of Edinburgh. If there is any carbon capture technology that deserves such an award, Haszeldine believes that direct air capture is the place to go.

Musk isn’t the first billionaire to propose a multi-million dollar price for carbon capture. Richard Branson started the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007 and offered $ 25 million for commercially viable machines that can remove significant amounts of CO₂ from the air for at least 10 years. Finalists were announced in 2011, but none met the criteria. The Carbon XPrize, which was launched in 2015, currently has 10 finalists trying to convert CO₂ into products. The winner is expected to be announced in 2021.

These past technology awards can help Musk design his own. His team will have to make a significant effort to identify the technology landscape and future ways to use it before launching the competition, said Dyson of Nesta Challenges. This will help create clear criteria that are ambitious but not impossible. The rules need to stay consistent, and small financial rewards for achieving smaller milestones can help teams stay motivated.

Dyson, who worked on the criteria for a direct air capture award, says he would love to work with Musk on his award – mostly because of his star power.

“People are going to want to try the price just to be associated with Elon Musk,” Dyson said. Carbon sequestration, previously confined primarily to the climate science wonks area, may have something to do with this type of mainstream advertising.

(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)

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