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How Elon Musk will award $100 million in carbon capture contest

XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit that has held other contests to encourage technological leaps, will oversee the competition.
Image: Elon Musk
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends the Axel Springer award, in Berlin, on Dec. 1, 2020.Hannibal Hanschke / Pool via Reuters file

WASHINGTON — How much would it take to spur the world's craftiest engineers and entrepreneurs to develop elusive technology able to suck gigatons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the air and the oceans?

Elon Musk, the billionaire tech entrepreneur, is betting it's $100 million, according to details released Monday about a four-year contest he is funding to develop carbon removal technologies. Not only will contestants have to build working prototypes that measurably remove carbon, but they will also have to prove that they can cost-effectively scale them to a level that exceeds anything that has ever been built before.

If the contest is successful, the organizers say, it would spur an array of new technologies that, taken together, would remove 10 gigatons of carbon from the planet per year by midcentury — nearly a third of the carbon that human energy use pumps into the air every year.

"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 announcing the prize's requirements. "Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence."

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Musk, the Tesla CEO who built much of his fortune by revolutionizing the electric vehicle industry, teased the $100 million prize last month in a tweet saying he was donating the sum for a prize "for best carbon capture technology." The first details were released Monday by XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit that has held other contests to encourage technological leaps and will oversee the contest, sponsored by Musk and his foundation.

Kicking off on Earth Day, April 22, the contest will run for four years. The top 15 teams will be selected after the first 18 months and will receive $1 million, helping to fund their operations as they work to build operational models. At the end of the four years, a first-place prize of $50 million will be awarded, with second place taking $20 million and the third-best entry taking home $10 million. In addition, 25 scholarships worth $200,000 will be awarded to competing academic teams.

Entrants must build "rigorously validated" working prototypes that remove at least 1 ton of carbon and day. The teams will be judged on whether they have proven that their solutions can be scaled up "to the gigaton level." To find economical solutions in a notoriously expensive field, the entries will also be judged on the cost per ton of carbon removed, as well as how long the carbon they remove remains locked up, with a goal of at least 100 years.

Although most efforts to address climate change have focused on cutting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the potential to remove and safely store carbon that has already been released has loomed for years as another potentially promising tool to limit global warming.

Carbon capture technologies developed so far have been extraordinarily expensive, used mainly to reduce or zero out emissions at specific energy production facilities and only at smaller scales. President Joe Biden, who has proposed to spend $2 trillion on climate change investments, pledged as a candidate to "double down on federal investments and enhance tax incentives" specifically for carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

"$100 million can really move the needle if applied tactically," said Noah Deich, president of Carbon180, a nonprofit that promotes carbon removal as a climate strategy. "Investors don't want to take market and technology risk. If they can demonstrate the technology works and use essentially philanthropic money to do it, there's a lot of people who want to deploy a lot of capital."

The contest organizers said they expect that a range of types of carbon technology will be reflected in the entries, including engineered solutions like direct air capture, in which chemical processes separate carbon from the air and store it. They said they also expect entries based on mineralization and enhanced weathering, as well as natural solutions, such as those that rely on trees, plants or the ocean to remove carbon.