Peter Diamandis on the Race to 100 Miles per Gallon (Part Two)

TreeHugger: What are some of the other X Prizes that are possibly coming up in the future?

Diamandis: In the energy and environment realm, we're thinking about a wide range of things. One is an X Prize around energy efficiency. There is lots of technology that can make the energy that we're currently producing be used more efficiently in the home. But that technology and those approaches are not being injected into the places that we live.

So, we're thinking and working with some of the top utilities about whether there can be an X Prize designed and developed that would do just that: bring a new set of technologies and public behavior to the energy that’s already produced. The quickest savings to help the environment is to use the energy we're producing far more efficiently so we can produce less of it.

We've also been looking at energy in the developing world. One of the fundamental elements of raising the standards of living for billions of people in the developing world is giving them access to clean, ubiquitous energy. Because once you have clean, ubiquitous energy you also have clean water, lighting for education, and better healthcare.

And one of the most fascinating implications of energy in the developing world is the effect it has on young women who spend a great deal of their time porting water around and foraging for firewood for cooking. Once you free them up from that burden, you are then in a situation that allows them to really be entrepreneurs, teachers, take care of their family, and it raises the standards of living tremendously, which has an effect on reducing the number of children that are born.

We've talked about carbon-air capture. Is there a prize for the ability to more efficiently—by a factor of 10—extract carbon out of the atmosphere?

We've talked about third-generation renewable fuels that might be algae based. Imagine if you had a facility in your neighborhood that was producing a third-generation bio-fuel from algae—you'd go and tank up every morning instead of going to your Chevron station.

So, those are some of the ideas that we're thinking and talking about.

TreeHugger: The whole idea for the X Prize thing came from a model that was around almost 100 years ago. Could you tell us where that came from?

Diamandis: Fundamentally, as humans, we're genetically evolved to compete. We compete in everything we do: in business, in finding your mate, in sports. We enjoy competing.

The first large-scale incentive prize competition was actually the Longitude Prize offered up by the British Admiralty, because thousands of seamen were crashing on the rocks around the UK because people could tell their latitude but not their longitude.

So they offered up a very large prize for the person who could accurately determine one's longitude. They expected the prize to be won by one of the astronomers coming up with a new way of reading the stars, but actually it was a British watchmaker who came up with an efficient pocket watch that was the solution for this, and consequently won it in a very unexpected fashion.

Fast forward another 150 years to the turn of the 20th century, and a Frenchman named Raymond Orteig, who was born in Paris and grew up in New York, offered up a $25,000 prize for the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris.

Incredibly, it was thought impossible in 1919 when it was first offered, and nine different teams spent $400,000 to win this $25,000 prize—16 times the prize amount.

The most likely guy to win it was Admiral Byrd, the first person to fly the North Pole. He crashed on take off. And then Lindbergh, the most unlikely guy to win it... In fact, the day before Lindbergh took off, on May 19th, 1927, the New York Times published an editorial that said: Stop! Don't make this flight, Lucky Lindy, because when you crash you're going to set back aviation a decade.

But just the opposite happened. His 33.5 hour flight turned out to be one of the most amazing events of the century, and he transformed what people thought about aviation.

And within 18 months of Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, the number of passengers in the US went from 6,000 to 180,000, so there was a 30-fold increase as people got it said: “Oh, my God! If this guy can fly across the Atlantic, I can be an airline passenger.”

So those are just some examples. There are many more: the DARPA Grand Challenge, the Kramer Prize. There is a category of problems that prizes can be used to solve. Prizes are not a panacea, and there is a category of prizes that we consider X Prizes that are to address the world's grand challenges.

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