$100M Prize for Carbon Capture Announced

Funded by Elon Musk, the XPRIZE for carbon removal is the largest incentive prize in history.

Elon Musk

Win McNamee/ Getty Images

In January, 2021, Elon Musk announced that he was donating $100 million towards a prize for the best carbon capture technology. We were skeptical then and remain so, believing, as does Dr. Jonathan Foley of Project Drawdown, that we should be concentrating on reducing our embodied and operating emissions.

Now that we have that out of the way, it should be noted that this is no flamethrower but a serious pledge. Musk is giving the money to the XPRIZE people who have run a number of successful incentive prizes, starting with the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight, and who claim that the prizes have "created exponential breakthroughs...Each of these prizes has created an industry-changing technology that brings us closer to a better, safer, more sustainable world." XPRIZE describes the problem:

"The world's leading scientists estimate that we may need to remove as much as 6 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2030, and 10 gigatons per year by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change. For humanity to reach the Paris Agreements goal of limiting the Earth’s temperature rise to no more than 1.5˚(C) of pre-industrial levels, or even 2˚(C), we need bold, radical tech innovation and scale up that goes beyond limiting CO2 emissions, but actually removes CO2 already in the air and oceans."

Teams have to come up with a working model capable of removing 1 ton of carbon per day, demonstrate that it can scale to the gigaton level, estimate a cost per ton of carbon stored, and lock up the carbon for a hundred years.

Fifteen teams will be selected within 18 months and will get $1 million each to build their models; the grand prize winner will get $50 million, the second prize gets $20M, the third gets $10M, with a four-year target for completion.

Marcius Extavour, the Executive Director of Prize Operations for XPRIZE explains that yes, they know that trees and wetlands can absorb carbon (the running joke is “Congratulations to the person who invents forests!”) but also that you can do it with rocks through mineralization (it reacts with basalt) and mechanical technologies such as Climeworks has been doing.

Elon Musk describes the goals of the competition:

"We want teams to build real systems that can make a measurable impact at a gigaton level. Whatever it takes. Time is of the essence."

I have included the tweets of Dr. Foley because I want to downplay my usual skepticism and let someone else do it; $100 million is a lot of money and who knows, it might come up with something useful.

There Is a Contradiction Here...

Transaction footprint
Transaction footprint of making a bitcoin.

The Digiconomist

It is interesting that on the same day that the details were released about the XPRIZE, Tesla also announced that it had bought $1.5 billion in Bitcoin; we don't know what price he paid but at the time of writing, bitcoins cost $40,000 each. According to the Digiconomist each bitcoin has a carbon footprint of 313.5 kg of CO2, so the purchase of 37,500 bitcoins may well have caused the emission of 11,737.5 tonnes of CO2. It seems that Elon Musk giveth and taketh away at the same time.

Put another way, a Tesla Model 3 holds a charge of 75 kWh, so it would take the equivalent of 8.8 Teslas worth of power to mine one bitcoin, or 330,000 fully charged Model 3 cars to power the manufacture of his bitcoins.

If the houses that Musk puts solar roofs on, averaging 10,400 kWh per year in output, were devoted to nothing but bitcoins, it would talk 2,666 houses per year to generate the power. This makes one wonder about the seriousness of his concern about carbon emissions.