Students awarded first US$5m from Elon Musk’s carbon removal prize

Article by Adam Duckett

23 student-led teams have won the first US$5m portion of the US$100m carbon removal prize launched by tech billionaire Elon Musk.

The teams were selected from among 195 proposals, and include universities from across ten countries including Australia, China, Malaysia, UK and US. The winners had to submit concepts for carbon removal technologies or ways to improve measurement and verification of carbon removal technologies. Ultimately, the prize is open to any solution that sequesters CO2 for the long term and is economically capable of scaling to the gigatonne levels. This includes direct air capture, mineralisation, and nature-based processes.

Among the winners are:

  • Skyrenu Technologies from the Université De Sherbrooke and Inrs-Eau Terre Environnement Research Centre in Canada. The team has proposed installing modular direct air capture devices at abandoned mines where the captured CO2 would be used directly in the carbonation of mine waste
  • Takachar from Canada, India, Kenya and the US including the from the University of British Columbia, Northeastern University, and IISC Bangalore. The team wants to use low-cost potable systems that latch on to the back of tractors to turn crop waste into carbon-negative, bio-char based fertiliser. In trials, this that has been shown to improve crop yields by 30% and net income by up to 50% for rural farmers who often pay 2-3 times more for fertilisers due to the costs of transporting it to their farms
  • Blue Symbiosis from the University of Tasmania in Australia. Rather than removing oil rigs from the oceans once they’ve stopped production, the team wants to use them as engineered reefs to grow seaweed that would draw down carbon dioxide and then be turned into ‘100-year construction materials’ including fireproofing for buildings
  • CyanoCapture from the University of Oxford in the UK. The team is proposing using a photobioreactor filled with genetically-modified algae that will rapidly convert CO2 captured from industry into biomass and oils

The student competition is designed to fund early stage concepts among the next generation of climate entrepreneurs and remove barriers for competing in the main competition. All submissions were reviewed by a panel of third-party experts who judged the proposed innovations, their ability to reach gigatonne scale, the teams’ resources and capabilities as well as the feasibility of their project plans. Each of the winners of the demonstration strand receive US$250,000, which they can use to support their push to compete for the overall prize. In the coming three years, the competition will award up to 15 milestone prizes worth US$1m and finally the judges will award a single winner US$50m and three runners up will share US$30m.

“Today’s college and graduate students have proclaimed that solving the climate crisis is one of the most important objectives of their generation. It’s for this reason that this student competition is so critical. Our mission is to engage, inspire and guide the next generation of climate entrepreneurs,” said Peter Diamandis, Founder of XPRIZE.

Musk, who is the CEO of electric car and energy storage firm Tesla, said when the prize was launched earlier this year: “We want to make a truly meaningful impact. Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction technologies that are measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton’ which includes the environmental impact. 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. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.