Here’s how Elon Musk’s $100 million Xprize competition for carbon removal will work

Elon Musk notified the world that he would be donating $100 million to pursue new technologies for carbon capture, methods through which carbon dioxide can be actively extracted from the atmosphere as a means to help stave off climate change. As TechCrunch reported in January when he made the tweet, Musk’s sizeable pool of monetary incentive would be going to the Xprize foundation, a nonprofit that has organized similar ambitious technology competitions aimed at developing world-changing tech. Now, Xprize and Musk have released new details of the competition.

The entire $100 million prize pool is up for grabs with this competition, which will seek solutions that can “pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans and lock it away permanently in an environmentally benign way.” That’s an ambitious goal, and one that seeks methods for carbon extraction which have a net negative effect on the overall global balance of the element’s presence. Xprize aims to award up to 15 finalists $1 million each, along with three top winners, with $50 million to the Grand Prize victor, and $20 million and $10 million respectively for second and third place. Twenty-five student scholarships valued at $250,000 each will also be up for grabs specifically for student team entrants.

To qualify for victory, solutions must be able to extract one ton of CO2 per day, and be viable in a scaled, validated model at time of presentation, with the ability to scale it to “gigaton levels” in commercially viable ways in the future. Those are big goals for new technologies, but the competition’s stakes are high: Musk has frequently referred to climate change as an existential threat to humanity, and carbon capture is one key means to combat it.

Carbon capture methods exist, and some are at the center of new startups and emerging businesses, like Canadian company Carbon Engineering, which uses CO2 extracted from the atmosphere to create new types of fuel, or Air Vodka, a carbon negative vodka distilled using C02 removed from the atmosphere. Though there are a handful of companies pursuing this, the problem is that it’s typically very expensive to remove carbon in a way that is both safe and that has no subsequent impact on the environment from its resulting byproducts.

The new Xprize competition hopes to spur the development of a wide range of emerging companies in a way similar to how the 2004 $10 million private spaceflight Ansari Xprize led the development of a whole new era in the space industry. The competition will officially begin on April 22, 2021, at which time full guidelines will be made available and registration will open. Applicants will have up to four years to submit their solution, with the competition closing on Earth Day 2025 and the initial $1 million awards distributed 18 months following that. That will provide the funding necessary for teams to build out their full-scale demos to claim the top prizes.

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