Tesla boss Elon Musk is offering $100 million to the winner of a new X Prize Foundation four-year global competition focused on developing carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies.
The prize will be awarded to the best project plan to eliminate carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and store that carbon in a safe, cost-effective way.
“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 Monday’s statement.
The 49-year-old entrepreneur, who has also invested in interplanetary travel with his SpaceX company, recently became the world’s richest person by pushing electric vehicles (EVs) as a way to help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and slow global warming.
The contest will run for four years, launching on April 22, 2021 (Earth Day) and run through Earth Day 2025.
Fifteen teams will be selected for the competition within 18 months. They will each get $1 million, and 25 separate $200,000 scholarships will be given to student teams who enter. The grand prize winner will be awarded $50 million, second place will receive $20 million, and third place will get $10 million.
To win, teams must create technology that can remove one tonne (2,200 pounds or 1,000 kg) of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere per day. They will also have to demonstrate how the innovation can be scaled up to be able to eventually remove gigatons of carbon dioxide, X Prize said.
A gigaton is a unit of measuring mass, equal to one billion metric tonnes, or 2.2 trillion pounds. NASA has a couple of explanations:
“One gigaton is equal to 10,000 fully-loaded US aircraft carriers or a sheet of ice placed on top of Central Park in Manhattan stacked 1,119 feet high,” NASA said, accompanying the explanation with an animation.
Current carbon capture technologies focus on removing CO₂ from the exhaust of power plants or factories, then burying the greenhouse gas deep to eliminate its contribution to global warming. The method captures only about 0.1% of the world’s total emissions.
The competition aims to spur innovations that can undo some of the environmental damage already made. In other words, to achieve “net negative emissions.”
Musk first announced that he was donating money towards a prize in January. It is not the first time he has collaborated with X Prize to crowdsource innovative solutions to global challenges.
Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 21, 2021
Musk has been working with the non-profit organization for about 10 years. He was a benefactor of the $15 million global learning X Prize, which concluded in 2019.
“The one thing missing from Elon’s competition is that the focus must be on permanence, scalability, and financeability – the three pillars of what experts call climate restoration,” Erica Dodds, COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, said in a statement.
The climate advocate noted the world needs to implement carbon capture technologies at scale, as there is “a trillion tons of excess CO2 in our atmosphere”. Doods said that legacy carbon – and not present-day emissions – is the main driver of global warming.
X Prize has been running innovation prizes since 1994 in the areas of space, oceans, learning, health, energy, environment, transportation, safety and robotics.