With a $20M incentive, Carbon XPRIZE takes aim at climate change

Unless you’ve been camping out under a rock for the last decade, you probably know that we’re totally destroying the Earth. We of wanton use of fossil fuels and reluctance to buy into change en masse are driving the single biggest crisis that faces our planet, and the folks behind the just-announced NRG COSIA Carbon Xprize are looking to help save us from ourselves.

The Carbon Xprize will challenge teams to harness carbon dioxide output from coal and natural gas power plants and transform it into something that is valuable, effectively incentivizing governments and the open market to become invested in solutions that make a big and necessary step towards cutting carbon emissions. That’s the legacy of Xprize, really. For the better part of twenty years, Xprize has been putting up money and calling upon global thinkers to solve global problems.

“Xprize, in a nutshell, is about looking at the world’s grand challenges…the big, thorny problems,” says Dr. Paul Bunje, Xprize Program Director for Energy and the Environment. “There are few challenges on the planet more urgent than CO2-driven climate change…If you look at the science of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, you get his exponential curve of warming,” says Bunje. “So, as much as you can do as soon as possible reduces by a similar exponent the amount of impact that we might expect to see…that’s the urgency: it’s quite literally ‘do everything you can, as soon as you can.'”

As the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in late November approaches, the stage seems to be set for an increase of focus on the global issue, and that’s exactly what the Carbon Xprize aims to do. The problem is hulking, growing and urgent, and by effectively crowd sourcing the research and development process, Xprize hopes to expedite change. “We want to accelerate the coming of different carbon solutions as rapidly as we possibly can,” says Bunje.

Participants will vie for one of ten finalists spots and the opportunity to “bench-test” their solutions at coal and natural gas power plants in competition for two $7.5 million prizes–one in each of the coal and natural gas tracks. All ten of the finalists will receive $500,000, rounding out the prize’s $20 million bottom line. This approach differs slightly from the structure of previous Xprize competitions, and was implemented with the intention of facilitating more solutions and projects.

“In an Xprize competition, though there are only a couple of teams that will share in the money, there are way more winners,” says Bunje. “And we want to see as many teams as possible going into the marketplace as quickly as possible…We want to give them a chance to accelerate the deployment of their technology because that’s the kind of thing that’s really going to drive the ultimate impact of the prize.”

The Carbon Xprize joins the lineage the Google Lunar Xprize, the Adult Literacy Xprize, and the legendary Ansari Xprize, which helped develop the foundation of the private space exploration industry. Beginning today, anyone looking to participate can register and get to work. The competition will span nine months and, with any luck, will produce some profoundly world-changing solutions to our rock’s little warming problem.

“We have to find a way to limit these carbon emissions,” says Bunje. “When somebody wins that prize, having that technology in the world is going to be transformative. It’s a clear demonstration of technology that can begin taking CO2 out of power plants instead of putting it into the immediately.”

Though the prize is the raison d’être for the competition, Bunje is hopeful that the effects of the Carbon Xprize will be felt far and wide, and will resonate in other industries with different problems.

“Just by showcasing the fact that it’s possible to solve a really hard problem,” says Bunje, “others become inspired to do something even greater.”

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