Last summer, the X-Prize Foundation announced that it would hold a new competition to create sustainable jet fuel. True to the X-Prize modus operandi, the foundation followed by holding a meta competition to invent the next competition—something that would be a “crazy green idea.” The winner of that competition was just announced, and it goes to….creating an ultracapicitor. Say what?
The idea behind the idea, is that batteries are bad for the environment—they leach all kinds of nasty materials into the ground, and proliferate alongside our newest gadgets (and gadget throw-aways). Capacitors are a totally different way of storing energy that can be charged in seconds, made totally green, and live for hundreds of thousands of cycles. But so far, they’re too expensive and low power.
Here’s the original pitch:
Will the X-Prize move ahead with this idea? It’s not certain yet, but either way this mini contest is a little disappointing. The last two X-Prizes—jet fuel and 100-mpg cars—address the greatest problem of our lifetime, carbon reduction. While environmental contamination is a distinct problem, batteries are just a small part of a larger issue. Two greater engineering problems would have been carbon capture or finding a means of cutting methane emissions from cow burps. (Don’t laugh—it’s a serious problem since methane is 23 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. That makes livestock account for 18% of our greenhouse emissions. Grasses that eliminate cow burps are already being developed.)
Still, you have to give it to the prize foundation: By simply awarding the winning pitch $25,000, it manages to publicize an obscure engineering challenge. And while the X-Prize has already experienced enormous successes—such as the creation of Virgin Galactic—creating mainstream awareness of fundamental problems might ultimately be its truest impact. Marketing doesn’t get much more canny, or more beneficial, than that.