What Exactly is Elon Musk Offering?
Musk has confirmed that he plans to donate $100 million to pay for the prize awarded to the best carbon capture technology. According to other news sources, the prize will be connected to the XPRIZE Foundation, which is a non-profit organisation that hosts public competitions to encourage technological development itself.
Three experts observe carbon capture technology in an industrial site.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
What is Carbon Capture Technology?
Carbon capture combines a variety of technologies to keep carbon dioxide produced by major factories from reaching the atmosphere. It can be captured from power plants and factories or directly from the air (but to date, the former is more common). There are various methods of carbon capture, such as pre-combustion and oxyfuel technology.
Pre-combustion converts the fuel into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2) before burning, while oxyfuel technology produces CO2 and steam by burning fuel alongside oxygen. The downside is that, to retrofit the technology to power stations (that were of course originally built without carbon capture capabilities), the often large and expensive modifications demand economic considerations, among many other concerns.
Which Companies Are Leading the Way?
When it comes to Musk’s prize for the ‘best’ technology, the companies leading the way at present are looking at new developments that capture carbon directly from the air (instead of from within power plants). There are a few startups that are making ground in the area, although they still face substantial challenges.
A Canadian company, Carbon Engineering, is working with Occidental Petroleum Corp to build the world’s first direct air capture plant. And recently, Microsoft turned to Swiss company Climeworks in the hopes that the latter’s air capture technology could help with the tech giant’s sustainability commitment. Meanwhile, the U.S.-based company Global Thermostat has already raised tens of thousands of dollars towards its technology.
Elon Musk’s carbon capture incentive reflects the increasing importance of combating the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that come from fossil fuel-reliant industrial sites. Pictured: two power plant chimneys release clouds of CO2.
Image Credit: Pexels
What Improvements Are Required?
Engineers’ current attempts to capture carbon dioxide directly from fossil fuel-burning power plants are already difficult and demanding, but the feat of pulling CO2 directly from the air—often in low concentrations—is another challenge altogether. It is both complicated and expensive.
To bring down the cost of the existing carbon capture air solutions (such as those mentioned previously), the relevant technologies need to be scaled up. But while having large enough plants would give engineers the chance to optimise the process through trials, building them would come at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The other approach, of course, would be to see the introduction of new innovations altogether—and this is most likely the reasoning behind Musk’s $100m prize offer.
Will Offering a Prize Yield Results?
Offering prizes in return for innovations is a long-used strategy. Look no further than the XPRIZE Foundation’s Carbon XPrize, which is also aimed at reducing atmospheric CO2 levels. And big names are nothing new, either: Richard Branson ran the Virgin Earth Challenge in 2007, challenging companies to demonstrate new methods of carbon removal.
As with Branson’s challenge, Musk’s offer will no doubt spark the entrepreneurial spirit amongst many engineers and other industry professionals. This will require much-needed investments to be made into carbon capture technologies that will yield marked results. What is certain, though, is that any participants will spend a great deal more money on developing the technology than they will gain from the already-substantial prize.
What is the End Goal?
We are still far from achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, and although people have so far responded to Elon Musk’s aforementioned tweet with the obvious suggestion to plant more trees, there is a limit to how many forests we can create. Ultimately, some kind of negative-emissions technology is needed. And on top of this, a prize from such a famous name as Elon Musk will give mainstream publicity to the importance of carbon capture.
A photograph that captures the take-off of Elon Musk’s SpaceX demo mission. This could one day be transformed into a zero-carbon equivalent if the necessary carbon capture technology is developed.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, Musk has commented in the past that he wants to lower the price for direct-air carbon capture to help create zero-emission rocket fuel. This could allow his SpaceX missions to eventually become zero-carbon and recycle emissions to power future trips. Altogether, such interests in controlling CO2 could be a win-win for the Tesla and SpaceX CEO. Let’s hope that the whole process will be a win-win for the planet, too.