October 22, 2021

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Elon Musk’s $100 million carbon capture XPrize competition starts today

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After teasing it last month, Elon Musk has unveiled his $100 million XPrize competition with the lofty aim of removing carbon from the atmosphere to help stem climate change. The competition opens up today to teams around the world and will run for four years.

In 18 months, judges will select the top 15 teams, each of which will receive $1 million. At the same time, $200,000 scholarships will be awarded to 25 separate student teams who enter. The top three teams will receive $10 million, $20 million and $50 million for the third-, second-place and grand prize winners, respectively.

Getting that money won’t be easy, though. The winners will have to develop technology “that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently in an environmentally benign way,” the XPrize contest rules state. Judges are hoping to see a solution that can remove a ton of CO2 per day, with the ability to scale that up to millions of tons.

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“The world’s leading scientists estimate that we may need to remove as much as 6 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2030, and 10 gigatons per year by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” the XPrize page states. “We need bold, radical tech innovation and scale up that goes beyond limiting CO2 emissions, but actually removes CO2 already in the air and oceans. If humanity continues on a business-as-usual path, the global average temperature could increase 6˚(C) by the year 2100.”

Despite the promises of the Paris accord, atmospheric CO2 levels continue to accelerate due to human activities — even though folks are stuck inside due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, sea levels continue to rise while glaciers and icebergs melt. Just this weekend, a Himalayan glacier that has receded considerably over the last four decades collapsed into a river in India, creating an avalanche that has killed at least 19 people so far.

Curtailing exhaust emissions from cars, homes and power plants is a necessary action, but it may not be enough — we might actually need to remove the CO2 that’s already there. However, carbon capture technology is still a new idea and current solutions are expensive. Proposed plans range from scrubbing emissions from power plants and storing them underground, to literally sucking in air, scrubbing out the CO2 and blowing it back into the atmosphere (direct capture).

So far, the simplest method is simply planting trees — though it would require a lot of them to have a significant impact on CO2 levels. In any case, something has to be done so our grandkids won’t be living underwater, and Musk’s new XPrize may at least kick off some good ideas. “We want to make a truly meaningful impact. Carbon negativity, not neutrality,” Musk said in a statement.

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