The X Prize Foundation provides financial incentives for innovative solutions to various technical challenges. Topics have ranged from developing spacecraft to trying to create a real-world version of the Star Trek tricorder. Last year, the foundation launched a $20 million challenge to come up with technologies by the year 2020 that turn carbon dioxide captured from the smokestacks of power plants into useful products.
The basic idea is that CO2 is in many ways like garbage. Basically, we produce it as a waste product by other things we do and most of it is thrown away – dumped into the atmosphere – where it contributes to climate change. The notion of carbon capture and storage, in this analogy, is pretty much the equivalent of a landfill – stashing it away where we hope it can do no harm.
The X Prize challenge instead looks at a recycling approach to dealing with CO2. The idea is to make it a renewable resource instead of a waste disposal problem. Carbon dioxide is already used to manufacture some products – such as urea fertilizer and some plastics. But these things are generally made from naturally occurring CO2 and not using particularly energy-efficient processes.
The ultimate goal is to turn CO2 captured from power plants into a new fuel. If this can be done on a large scale and use processes based on renewable energy or even directly from sunlight, then carbon dioxide will become a renewable resource that does not adversely affect our planet.
Scientists at UC Berkeley’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis are among many groups going after the prize and include established companies and start-ups like Sunfire in Germany. If this X Prize is awarded, we will all be winners.
Photo, posted June 23, 2014, courtesy of Clay Gilliland via Flickr.