The Carbon XPRIZE: Exponential Approaches to Energy and Climate

June 5, 2016 |
Marcius Extavour

Marcius Extavour

By Marcius Extavour and Paul Bunje

Special to The Digest

Climate change and energy transformation may be the 21st century’s greatest challenge. And Biotech, and biofuels in particular, are fields that are poised to bring forth breakthrough solutions. By touching elements of agriculture, photosynthesis, water use, and energy generation, storage, and distribution, biofuels are a nexus technology that can address a range of key energy challenges.

Paul Bunje

Paul Bunje

Biotech is rapidly blurring the lines between the impossible and the possible. The exponential pace of advances lends the field to tackling grand challenges in energy and climate, but also to others including poverty, chronic disease, or total planetary exploration. Listing grand challenges may be straightforward, but it is a critical step in solving a grand challenge that requires great care. Naming and framing the problem first, demands both an understanding of the complexity involved in the problem itself and in a vision for defining characteristics of a solution. With a problem well defined, and the shape of a solution identified, exponential tools such as those of biotech can be deployed to create and demonstrate real breakthroughs.

Under the right conditions, biofuels and biomass-based energy systems can be sustainable, modular, scalable, carbon neutral, or even carbon negative. This has been known for some time, as have the risks of “disrupting” in the wrong direction, by upending food prices and supply, increasing CO2 and methane emissions, or adversely impacting local economies and communities. Today there is evidence that these potential pitfalls, and lessons from earlier generations of technologies, are pushing the field in the right direction. For instance, the launch of the world’s first major bio energy plus carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) facility in Illinois is a great example of an initiative to demonstrate project-scale feasibility and economics, not just macro-scale benefits. And we look forward to others in the months and years ahead.

The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is a US$20 million global competition to incentivize technologies that convert CO₂ emissions into valuable products like fuels, advanced materials, building materials, and others. The winning teams will convert the largest quantity of CO2 from actual flue gas (from coal or natural gas power plant) into one or more products with the highest net value. The 10 teams that survive the first two elimination rounds (proposal evaluation, then lab-scale demonstration) will utilize two brand new test centers adjacent to operating power plants to demonstrate their solutions at scale.

The Carbon XPRIZE is built to showcase new ways to transform CO2 instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. At its best, an XPRIZE capitalizes on the billions of potential solvers in the world and enables demonstration of truly novel approaches. The link to biofuels comes through the research groups and companies that are looking to harness advances in synthetic biology, bio-reactor design, cyanobacteria, engineered photosynthesis, and low-carbon energy conversion to use living organisms to carry out the chemical conversion of CO2. This effort is part of a broader need to mitigate CO2 emissions globally. Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) have the potential to become a major player in climate change mitigation, especially if the can make an impact on existing (and growing) CO2 emissions from electricity generation. However, biofuels-from-CO2, and CCUS generally, is not without challenges.

These approaches have been criticized as too expensive, too risky, and too enabling of the continued use of fossil fuels. Further, conventional wisdom has been that CO2 as a feedstock can never compete on cost and energy intensity basis with fossil hydrocarbon feedstocks. Biofuels veterans will recognize the challenge of displacing fossil hydrocarbons not only as feedstocks, but as end-use products. But this balance may be shifting, and XPRIZE and others are trying to accelerate that shift. Biofuels may be front and center in this conversation, since hydrocarbon drop-in fuels are among the primary products targeted by the CO2 conversion community, be it diesel, methanol, butanol, or others. Together, these approaches may alter the energetics, the economics, and the broader narrative to the point where bio-based CO2 conversion could be poised for a radical leap forward.

The Carbon XPRIZE is an invitation to take that leap. But outside of this XPRIZE, the promise of bio-derived energy in the 21st century is call to action to all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and creative minds to demonstrate and inspire a path to a better future. We have the tools, we have scientific knowledge and capacity, we have the big thinkers, and anyone can now be a part of the solution.

About the Authors

Marcius Extavour is the director of technical operations, NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, Energy and Environment Group, XPRIZE, where he leads the operational and technical aspects of the $20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a global competition for conversion of carbon dioxide from power plants into valuable products. Over the past 15 years, he has applied a background in experimental physics and engineering to complex problems in industry, government, and academia. This work took him to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where he held the OSA/SPIE/AAAS Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, the Canadian electric utility Ontario Power Generation, and more recently the faculty of applied science and engineering at the Univ. of Toronto, where he served as Director of Government and Industry Partnerships. He has a BASc in engineering science, and an MSc and PhD in MSc quantum optics and atomic physics, all from the Univ. of Toronto.

Paul Bunje is the principal and senior scientist, Energy and Environment group, XPRIZE, where he brings his ability to bridge the gap between science and society to incentivize solutions to diverse challenges facing our world, including climate change, energy, and our ocean. This work includes leading the $2-million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE and the $20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. He has served as the founding Executive Director of the Univ. of California, Los Angeles, Center for Climate Change Solutions and as the Managing Director of the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability. In these roles, he facilitated innovative research and communication between scientists, decision makers, and the public, and led the creation of regional climate change programs for the 10 million people of Los Angeles County. He is also the co-founder of Conservation X Labs, an organization that brings innovation to global conservation threats. In 2013, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) selected Paul as one of 40 individuals that exemplify the thousands of AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows who are dedicated to applying science to serve society. He has a BS from the Univ. of Southern California in biology and a PhD from the Univ. of California, Berkeley in evolutionary biology and genetics.



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