Colonizing Mars is not Elon Musk’s only ambition, he is also determined to better the life on planet Earth as well. The tech titan has pledged a $100 million dollar prize for whoever demonstrates the best technology for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the atmosphere.
Musk also said that the details of this program will be announced next week. Looks like a tight schedule for teams for putting together a proposal to convince the most knowledgeable CEO in the world.
This is the 2nd donation that Elon Musk is putting on the table this month, the first one was a $5M contribution to Khan Academy in order to spread education beyond boundaries.
What is Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS)
In short, the process or technique for decarbonization or removal of carbon from the atmosphere and storing it under the Earth’s crust is called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). If the process also involves the utilization of captured CO2 for further use, it’s called Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU).
Making carbon-neutral fuels, performing chemical synthesis, carbon mineralization, and algae cultivation are some use cases of CO2 utilization.
This technology is largely under-utilized, only 17 CCS projects were operational as of 2019. The implementation of a CCS or CCU system would best suit coal or fossil-fule-powered electricity generation plants, where the emissions can be brought down significantly.
Although a CCS system can reduce a power plant’s emissions by 80-90%, with the current technology, this implementation increases the per kWh cost of the electricity produced by 21-91% for a fossil fuel-based power plant.
Further Study: CCS | CCU (Wikipedia) | An analysis of research hotspots and modeling techniques on carbon capture and storage (Scientific paper).
Musk’s aim with the 100M grant
What Elon Musk means by ‘best’ in his above-mentioned tweet might be the cost reduction of the implementation and reduction of cost. Musk as a businessman is always pursuing to drive down the cost of his products and services in order to make them available for a wider range of customers.
Tesla has brought the electric car costs significantly and has created stiff competition in the automotive market to push existing companies in bringing the cost of their EVs down. The same goes for his SpaceX rocket launches, he has been successful in bringing down the cost of lower orbit satellite launches.
Elon Musk‘s investment in this sector would double down on the efforts towards a sustainable future along with electric vehicles to reduce automotive emissions.
The United States government is also keen on such projects, according to a T&D World report, in 2019, the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) announced 3 funding opportunities totaling a $110M.
Some private sector companies are already working on carbon capture projects. One such company is BioMitech from Mexico. BioMitech has created artificial robotic trees that inhale polluted air and the algae stored in containers on top of the tree absorbs the CO2, clean air full of oxygen is then released into the surroundings. The product is named BioUrban and is currently functional in Mexico.
According to the company, the carbon absorption capability of BioUrban 2.0 is equal to 368 natural trees. In my opinion, similar projects might capture Elon Musk’s attention as these look practical and cost-effective.
Algae needs carbon dioxide to survive, this type of original idea is what most probably Musk will be expecting in grant proposals.