: Elon Musk puts up $100 million for carbon-capture competition — scalability isn’t so easy

United States

Elon Musk will tap his electric-vehicle fortune to reward $ 100 million in technology prizes for carbon capture, a practice still in its rough stages that historically has divided those fighting to slow global warming.

Musk announced the contest last month but offered new details Monday.

“Carbon negativity, not neutrality. This is not a theoretical competition; we want teams that will build real systems that can make a measurable impact and scale to a gigaton level,” Musk said in a statement on Monday.

The carbon-removal contest will be administered by the Xprize Foundation, a nonprofit group that’s held competitions for technology development to improve space travel, food and health. The new prize will be backed by a donation from the TeslaTSLA and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. founder’s Musk Foundation.

Conventional carbon capture focuses on removing CO? from the emissions of power plants or factories then burying the greenhouse gas underground. This approach as currently developed captures only about 0.1% of global emissions. Reforestation is one way to improve carbon capture but not at the scope of industrial-level capture.

For the Musk contest, entrants will have to demonstrate a method for capturing as much as 1 ton of CO? per day as cheaply as possible, while proving to judges that the technology can be scaled up to remove as much as 1 billion tons a year.

But if technology and costs can be conquered, a study published in 2020 suggested that the emerging industry could rival the size of modern fossil-fuel production. Annual revenues from carbon removal could reach as much as $ 1.4 trillion by 2050, the study found.

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Most Republican proposals for climate-change legislation call for the inclusion of carbon capture. Those proposals have been revived as a counterpoint to the Biden administration’s call for $ 2 trillion in spending to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050, while shoring up infrastructure and promoting electric vehicles, among other steps.

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Scientists are clear that the world needs to first reduce emissions, the point driven home by the most fervent climate activists. But if climate change is to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report published in 2018, then the world may also need to capture and store as much as 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air, advocates have said. That’s as much as half of current global CO? emissions. 

The focus from Musk’s competition “must be on permanence, scalability and financeability — the three pillars of what experts call climate restoration,” said Dr. Erica Dodds, chief operating officer of Foundation for Climate Restoration.

To check off permanence, the carbon capture technologies deployed must permanently remove the atmospheric CO2 that is warming our planet.

“This is the only way to return our atmosphere to safe, pre-industrial levels of CO2,” she said.

Scalability is key, she says, because we have a trillion tons of excess CO2 in our atmosphere, and this legacy carbon — and not present-day emissions — is the main driver of global warming.

Costs mandate a commercial market for carbon capture, Dodds added. It exists; it needs to expand. “We already have commercially viable options, like Carbon8 Systems and Blue Planet Ltd, which sequester carbon in limestone and concrete, making carbon-negative concrete,” she said.

Contest participants have some competition in the traditional energy space. Carbon Engineering Ltd. is looking to scale its direct air capture technology with Occidental Petroleum Corp. OXY, +11.33% The first large-scale plant will capture about 1 million tons of CO? each year, but will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and spend just as much on annual operating costs.

In general, major oil companies that have the expertise to manage gases at large scale had limited their investment in the carbon-capture technology, in part because the price on carbon hasn’t always made it a profitable endeavor. But the pressure to push on toward capture is there. In January, Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM, +4.23% pledged to spend $ 3 billion over five years carbon capture plants.

Three Musk winners will be named for three separate prizes —$ 50 million, $ 20 million and $ 10 million — on the same day in 2025. Students teams will also receive scholarship money.

The prize money may come from the philanthropic arm of Musk’s interests, but his own businesses are impacted. SpaceX’s rocket fuel is currently carbon based and its carbon footprint has come under scrutiny. The company has applied for licenses to drill for natural gas near its Texas launch site.

Musk in past comments has said that he envisions a future where SpaceX can “use solar power to extract CO? from the atmosphere, combine it with water, and produce fuel and oxygen” for his rockets. That’s economical only if the cost of carbon-removal technologies falls substantially.

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Xprize is in the final stages of a separate competition that is looking to further develop conventional carbon capture technology and find ways to put the CO? to use in valuable products, such as synthetic fuel or advanced materials like carbon fiber. A total of 48 teams entered the competition and nine remain in the final round, with two prizes worth $ 10 million each to be handed out later this year, Bloomberg reported.