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At Two Power Plants, Scientists Are Racing Each Other To Turn Carbon Into Dollars

The 10 finalists in the four-year-long Carbon XPRIZE have been selected, and will embark on a two-year project to show that there’s a market for products made from captured carbon.

At Two Power Plants, Scientists Are Racing Each Other To Turn Carbon Into Dollars
Carbon Upcycling Technologies [Photo: XPRIZE/Shae Paterson]

It sounds like something out of science fiction: 10 teams of scientists and innovators that are working on plans to converting carbon emissions into useful products will ship out to two carbon-dioxide emitting power plants. Five teams will travel to a natural-gas fired plant in Alberta, Canada, and the five others will go to a coal-powered plant in Gillette, Wyoming. There, they’ll have two years to prove the validity of their models.

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CERT [Photo: XPRIZE/Tony Law]
This is, in fact, the final stage of the Carbon XPRIZE–a four-and-a-half-year-long, $20 million global competition to develop and scale models for converting carbon emissions into valuable products like enhanced concrete, liquid fuel, plastics, and carbon fiber. XPRIZE runs various competitions around topics ranging from water quality to public health. From 47 ideas first submitted to the challenge, a panel of eight energy and sustainability experts whittled the list down to the final 10. The two winners–one from the Canada track, and the other from Wyoming–will receive a $7.5 million grand prize to bring their innovation to market.

“We give the teams literally the pipes coming out of the power plants, and they can bring whatever technology they’re developing to plug into that source,” says Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE senior director of Energy and Resources and the lead on the Carbon XPRIZE competition. Teams will be judged on how much CO2 they convert, and the net value of their innovations.

The finalists stationed at Wyoming include C4X, a team from Suzhou, China producing bio-foamed plastics, and Carbon Capture Machine from Aberdeen, Scotland, which is making solid carbonates potentially to be used in building materials. Carbon Cure from Dartmouth, Canada, and Carbon Upcycling UCLA from Los Angeles are both experimenting with CO2-infused concrete, and Breathe from Bangalore is making methanol, which can be used as fuel.

C4X [Photo: XPRIZE/Zhefan Shen]
In Alberta, Carbicrete from Montreal is making concrete with captured CO2 emissions and waste from steel production, and Carbon Upcycling Technologies from Calgary is producing nanoparticles that can strengthen concrete and polymers. CERT from Toronto is making ingredients for industrial chemicals, C2CNT from Ashburn, Virginia, is making tubing that can serve as a lighter alternative to metal, say for batteries, and Newlight from Huntington Beach, California, is making bioplastics.

“This XPRIZE is about climate change, sustainability, and getting to a low-carbon future,” Extavour says. “The idea is to take emissions that are already being produced, and preventing them from leaking out into the atmosphere or oceans or soil, and converting them, chemically, into valuable material.”

Newlight [Photo: XPRIZE/Dave Kebo]
Carbon capture is not a new idea. The concept of trapping carbon emissions before they seep out from a power plant by sequestering them in the ground, or sucking them out of the air, as a facility in Zurich does, has been around for years, but not without controversy. If innovators are able to scale carbon-capture and conversion models, will it stop the push toward renewables?

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The two entities sponsoring the prize certainly make it seem like that’s a possibility. One, NRG is a large energy company that manages power plants across the U.S., and Canada’s Oil Sand’s Innovation Alliance, a consortium of oil sands producers. (NRG has made efforts to reduce its emissions; it’s retiring three natural-gas fired plants across California over the next year.)

Carbicrete [Photo: XPRIZE/Laurent Vu]
But Extavour does not see carbon conversion as antithetical to reducing emissions overall. Rather, “I think it’s complimentary,” he says. “We just don’t have the option of turning off our CO2-emitting resources today.” While emission-free options like solar, wind, and geothermal are scaling, he says, they’re not doing so fast enough to completely replace carbon. “There’s still a hard core of emissions from sectors like manufacturing that we have to get our hands around,” Extavour says.

“This isn’t about a proposal anymore,” Extavour says. “This is about: Can you build it in a way that works and is reliable? And can you do it in a way that’s not just climate and carbon sustainable, but economically sustainable? Can you build a business around this technology? Because if you can, that’s how we can get emitters of CO2 today to actually adopt these solutions and scale them up, and really take a bit out of emissions.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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