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Incentivizing Exponential Approaches to Energy and Climate

May 26, 2016
Biotech may be the 21st century’s greatest opportunity. Climate change and energy transformation may be its greatest challenge. The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE intends to bring the opportunity of biotech to this challenge—it is a call to action to all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators to demonstrate and inspire a path to a better energy future.

Biotech is rapidly blurring the lines between the impossible and the possible. The exponential pace of technological advances makes biotech a natural fit for solving some of humanity’s grand challenges, like poverty, climate change, cancer, or total planetary exploration. Listing grand challenges can seem trite, but in reality, naming and framing the problem demands an understanding of the complexity and nuance involved in the problem itself, and in a vision for defining characteristics of a solution. An XPRIZE capitalizes on the billions of potential solvers in the world and enables demonstration of truly novel approaches.

The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is a US $20 million global competition to incentivize technologies that convert CO₂ emissions into valuable products like advanced materials, building materials, fuels, and others. The winning teams will convert the largest quantity of CO2 from actual flue gas (from coal or natural gas power plant) into one or more products with the highest net value. The 10 teams that survive the first two elimination rounds (proposal evaluation, then lab-scale demonstration) will utilize two brand new test centers adjacent to operating power plants to demonstrate their solutions at scale.

The Carbon XPRIZE is built to showcase new ways to transform CO2 instead of allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. This effort is part of a broader need to mitigate CO2 emissions globally. Carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) have the potential to become a major player in climate change mitigation, especially if the can make an impact on existing (and growing) CO2 emissions from electricity generation. However, CCUS is not without challenges, and has been dismissed by some critics as too expensive, too risky, and too enabling of the continued use of fossil fuels. Further, conventional wisdom has been that CO2 as a feedstock can never compete on cost and energy intensity basis with fossil hydrocarbon feedstocks. But an emerging set of technologies and policies, based in particular on advances in synthetic biology, bio-reactor design, cyanobacteria, engineered photosynthesis, and low-carbon energy conversion, may shift the energetics and cost curves to the point where CO2 conversion could be poised for a radical leap forward.

The Carbon XPRIZE is an invitation to take that leap. It is a call to action to anyone ready to use exponential biotech, crowdsourcing, the democratization of science enabled by the internet, and new funding models to help realize a better future. We have the tools. We have scientific knowledge and capacity. We have the big thinkers. Anyone can now be a part of the solution.


Marcius Extavour is the director of technical operations, NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, Energy and Environment Group, XPRIZE.

Paul Bunje is the principal and senior scientist, Energy and Environment group, XPRIZE.