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

Peter Diamandis X-Prize image

"Radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity," that's the X Prize Foundation's stock in trade. In the second part of our conversation with Peter Diamandis, the Foundation's founder and CEO, we hear about other avenues for creating big changes in the realms of clean energy, space travel, and the importance of crazy ideas. Read or listen to the first part of our conversation here.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Music comes from Chris Volpe

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Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Space is a big focus of the X Prize Foundation. But this is controversial, especially among the environmentally-minded who point out that, well, it uses a lot of fuel. And more generally, a lot of people wonder why we're so eager to get to space if we can't help ourselves from trashing the planet we're on.

What do you say to arguments like that?

Diamandis: I think people need to look at the much bigger picture. First of all, as humans we are explorers, and the frontiers that we explore are fundamentally critical to our continued survival. It's like saying to the Europeans 500 years ago, "we've got problems here in Europe, why is that Columbus guy venturing across the oceans to try and find riches?"

Well, in fact, what was found was a new nation, a new democracy, a new capitalist society that ended up becoming a critical part of today's world.

If you look at space, everything that we hold of value on this planet—metals, minerals, energy, real estate—are in near infinite quantities in space. The Earth is a crumb in a supermarket that's filled with resources. To enable the six-plus billion people on this planet to have the same standards of living, fundamentally means that these individuals will have access to the same levels of energy and the same amount of resources and materials that we here in America have. Alternatively, we here in first-world nations have to give up two-thirds of what we are able to consume, and give it to the people who don't have it.

If we're going to raise the standard of living across the planet, we need access to the energy and resources that are outside the Earth's ecosphere. It's very myopic to think of only looking at Earth, in which case you'd have to rape and pillage the planet further than it has been already.

The way I look at it is that the solar system that we live in is simply the next frontier that we will be able to explore and utilize to benefit the growing population of Earth. That's my belief, that we will explore and discover things in space that will fundamentally transform and improve the quality of Earth, for people here.

TreeHugger: The X Prize Foundation recently put up $25,000 for a contest that was conducted over YouTube that you guys dubbed "What's your crazy green idea?" Where did that idea come from and who won?

Diamandis: The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea. An incremental improvement that you can predict—a computer that's faster or cheaper—isn't a breakthrough. But computing on silicon, when you've been using vacuum tubes, is a breakthrough. And fundamentally, breakthroughs come from nonsensical thinking. They come in orthogonally.

They come in from a person who's never been in the area, who walks in and says: what about doing it this way? And people say, "that's ridiculous, forget it!" And of course, that's where the new idea comes from.

Experts are people who can tell you exactly how something can't happen, not how it necessarily can happen differently. So, it's inherent in how we do things here at X Prize to look for audacious but achievable goals. And audacious but achievable goals sometimes come from a population of people that you might not expect.

So we put the challenge out to the world, and the way that we ran the competition is we asked for video entries of a certain length and content to be put forward. We had a panel of judges from within the X Prize who evaluated them based on a series of set criteria, and came up with the three top videos that were then put out to the public for vote.

The team that won was a team of two young college students. In fact, when we had the celebrations we had to use ginger ale instead of champagne because they were underage.

One was a filmmaker, and the other was an entrepreneur and future energy engineer who looked at the idea of a competition for the development of robust super capacitors that would be a way to more quickly and more efficiently store and utilize energy.

For me, the most important things that came out of the competition was getting a lot of people to start thinking about: "What if? What could be?"

We have a good amount of work going on right now that's being funded by Paul Allen at Vulcan and Gordon Moore at the Moore Foundation to look at energy and environment X Prizes.

There is so much money going into energy that coming up with an X Prize that really is going to address an area that's stuck is very important. We're not interested in throwing money at something that would happen anyway. We're looking for an area that's stuck, that isn't moving along, that has potential if we could get people moving in that direction.

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