The world's biggest companies cite many reasons for cutting their climate pollution: It's good PR, it's even the law in many places, and not doing so contributes to the risk of global catastrophe. Here's one you don't hear so much. By blowing their carbon dioxide skyward, power plants are venting raw material and, by extension, a ridiculous amount of money. Waste is being wasted. All that carbon and oxygen must be good for something.
That's the premise of the XPrize Foundation's new Carbon Prize, a $20 million competition over five years to identify "high-value products" that can be made from captured power-plant CO2 emissions. The competition formally opened Tuesday with a six-month period for teams to register their projects that might involve biofuels, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, and building materials. Within prescribed limits, it doesn't matter what's made, as long as the CO2 is captured and turned into something people or businesses want to buy.
Competitors must make it through three judging rounds. The two main prizes of $7.5 million each will go to the teams that make the most of CO2 from coal and gas plants. A U.S. coal plant and Canadian gas plant will be named as the XPrize's test sites soon. The prize is sponsored by NRG Energy and Canada's Oil Sands Industry Alliance.
The guidelines rule out technologies that miss the spirit of low-carbon innovation. Trees, for example, have proven adept at catching carbon, but their core technology—photosynthesis—isn't new. "Enhanced oil recovery" is energy-industry jargon for pumping CO2 into a well to drive up more oil. That's a marketable use of the gas, but in the service of burning more carbon.
The Carbon Prize may be the most physically challenging competition yet. Not because it necessarily requires great exertion, but because of the actual physical chemistry of CO2 itself. Carbon dioxide is a very low-energy molecule. It's spent fuel—the molecular equivalent of passing out from exhaustion after a long run. So to make CO2 into anything useful, you need to use lots of energy. But producing energy typically emits CO2, which the XPrize wants people to make into useful products, which requires energy, which produces CO2 ….
The XPrize Foundation gets around this carbon tape-loop by making sure that energy and resource efficiency are baked into its judging process. There's no rule stating that teams need to tap renewable fuel to manufacture their CO2 into something else. Competitors can score more points by using less energy and water.
"We don't, on this prize, directly address the question of what type of energy is the input, but rather how much," said Paul Bunje, an XPrize principal and senior scientist for energy and the environment. Energy is "a place where we at XPrize are looking at future prizes as well."
As the XPrize Foundation looks to its future, its Carbon Prize, coincidentally, is looking to the past. Sucking carbon from smokestacks and making things with it is a nearly century-old, Republican idea. "The very coke oven today that is not recovering its by-products, turning its by-products into the air, is turning a loss that can never be recovered," then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover told a chemical-industry group in 1921. "If we are going to maintain our own world, we must turn all these waste factors into something productive."