XPRIZE offers $20 million to scrub CO2: Will it work?

Can a prize money competition find solutions to scientific and technological problems?

AP Photo/Martin Meissner/File
Smoke streams from the chimneys of the E.ON coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany in 2014. The U.N. weather agency says levels of carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases, reached record highs last year. Pushed by the burning of coal, oil and gas for energy, global CO2 levels are now 143 percent higher than before the industrial revolution, say researchers.

In 2015, nonprofit group XPRIZE proposed a $20-million challenge: Find the most profitable way to capture and repurpose carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

A year later, the judging has begun. Last week, a nine-seat panel halved the original submission pool and initiated the second round of the contest. The 27 advancing research teams have less than a year to demonstrate their techniques experimentally – from there, up to 10 finalists will receive $500,000 “milestone purse” to help them continue toward the main prize.

For better or worse, such a contest is fundamentally different from the grant-based research model. But while some question the approach, others say science could use a bit of free-market spirit. Can competition and corporately funded cash prizes really motivate technological growth?

The XPRIZE isn’t the only award designed to encourage high-impact scientific research. But many of the others, such as the Millennium Technology Prize and the Nobel Prize, are retrospective – committees consider the significance of existing research, then award prizes based on that assessment. The XPRIZE, on the other hand, is a targeted attempt to find new solutions to specific problems.

A large portion of active scientific research is funded by grants, bestowed either by governments or large private entities. These stipends promote inquiry into important scientific questions, but may or may not yield useful results.

“But the prize format flips that on its head,” says Marcius Extavour, director of technical operations for the Carbon XPRIZE, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s not a reward for ideas, but a reward for demonstrated success. They’re really complementary approaches: Grants are great for funding ideas and growing knowledge, but prizes are about demonstration.”

There’s evidence to suggest that this approach may be effective. When the US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its $40 million Smart City Challenge, officials expected 15 to 20 cities to apply. It was, after all, a daunting challenge: the winning city would need to fully integrate new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and smart sensors, into its existing transportation network.

But when submissions closed, the DOT had collected proposals from 78 municipalities across the country. Columbus, Ohio ultimately won the challenge for its “holistic” approach, but the DOT continues to collaborate with the six finalist cities.

In the aftermath of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers made the harrowing realization that cleanup technology had not changed or improved in decades: the same machines that had been deployed in the 1991 Persian Gulf spill were simply dusted off and reused. In 2011, XPRIZE awarded $1 million to the Elastec/American Marine team for developing a bladeless turbine to pump oil out of water.

“The really cool thing about the demonstration was that it showed not just that improvements were possible, but that dramatic improvements were possible,” Mr. Extavour says. "That prize really brought innovation out of the woodwork.”

Such contests may also incentivize research in neglected areas of science.

According to a report by the Center for American Progress, NASA’s 2013 exploration budget was $3.8 billion. The same report found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received just over $23 million in government funding for its ocean exploration program that year, even though just 7 percent of the ocean floor had been reliably mapped. In 2015, XPRIZE offered $7 million to whoever could design the most durable submersible robot for ocean mapping. The competition is ongoing.

Like mapping the ocean floor, reducing CO2 emissions has been an unsexy research area. To make a noticeable dent in carbon pollution, most industrialized nations would have to overhaul their energy infrastructure. Meanwhile, developing nations would need to abandon high-emitting (and economically lucrative) technologies despite the growing energy needs of their populations.

CO2 capture technologies could lessen the burden of action across the board, allowing nations to more gradually transition away from fossil fuels. Doing so efficiently presents not just a technological challenge, but a logistical question: Where will we put the carbon? XPRIZE semifinalists have proposed a wide variety of uses, including enhanced concrete, toothpaste, and fish food.

“We believe that these teams will push the boundaries of CO2 utilization and create breakthrough solutions that will tackle a significant source of CO2 emissions,” said Paul Bunje, senior scientist for XPRIZE's energy and environment division, in a statement.

The prize-driven research model may also benefit researchers themselves. Contests are open to the public, in an apparent effort to tap into the ideas of students and non-academics. And since building new technologies can be very materials-oriented, it may be hard for researchers to secure coverage ahead of the finished product. Participating in the competition can "get people talking about the problem space."

“For a lot of them, the prize purse is just one motivating factor,” Extavour says. “Another is the ability to get exposure for what they're doing. Tech evaluations and third party auditing can be very valuable for the teams.”

As with any private enterprise, the approach poses ethical questions. The nonprofit’s carbon capture prize, for example, is partially subsidized by NRG – an American energy provider – and an alliance of Canadian oil sands producers called COSIA. Perhaps more surprisingly, XPRIZE’s ocean exploration initiative was sponsored by Shell. Many of the organizations prizes are subsidized by corporations, although some are funded by individual or anonymous donors.

But it's not all about PR. Sponsor companies are invested in the results of the research. An energy provider, for example, would be very interested in technologies for limiting the impact of their own emissions, especially since many nations will soon crack down on carbon under the Paris agreement.

“Private companies are interested in seeing this technology developed,” Extavour says. “It’s something they've tried to do themselves, and they’ll want to deploy in the marketplace.”

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