Launched in 2015 and yesterday whittled down to 10 finalists, the Carbon XPrize has now progressed to its final, critical stage. The US$20 million contest asks competitors to develop technologies that can capture CO2 emissions from operational power plants and convert them into valuable products, with concrete, plastics and battery components among the potential applications. As these teams prepare to put their technologies to the test under real-world conditions for the first time, New Atlas chatted with XPrize's senior director of energy and resources Dr Marcius Extavour about the possibilities that they may bring.

Before he found his way to the XPrize foundation, Extavour was a Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the US Senate, served as a consultant on the safety of conducted energy weapons for the Canadian government, and earned a masters degree and PhD from the University of Toronto, where he also served as the Director of Government and Corporate Partnerships in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. He now looks to use his expertise to tackle humanity's biggest challenges regarding energy and climate.

The battle against global warming is being fought on many fronts. Why has XPrize chosen this particular area, the conversion of CO2 into useful products, as its focus for a climate change competition?

Xprize is a not for profit and we're focused on using this thing we call the incentive prize model, a challenge where we don't define the solution, but we define the problem. We invite, through a sort of crowdsourced method, innovators from around the world to showcase their solutions and really demonstrate what's possible using a technology breakthrough.

When we first explored this years ago, and thought about all the ways we could try to have an impact on energy – the climate and the climate change landscape – focusing on the buildup of CO2 emissions really rose to the top. We selected a topic that we thought had tremendous opportunity for growth that wasn't going to happen on its own through other forces, and that a prize could help to stimulate and catalyze new activity. And that is how we landed on the carbon conversion topic.

For context, you could for example, not produce CO2 emissions in the first place, you know that's the renewables path, we applaud that, that's a fantastic path. You could try to capture emissions directly out of the air, or you could try to sequester carbon emissions underground in a rock. But the niche of transforming emissions that already exist, or will exist, into new materials, has the wonderful promise of taking one of the largest challenges of the world and turning it into one of the largest business opportunities. And that's the kind of unique opportunity we think the XPrize can fit into. That's why we chose this topic.

If this kind of technology can be realized and scaled up, where and how do you see it fitting in alongside other climate change mitigation strategies?

We think its complementary to a lot of other mitigation strategies. So this is absolutely not a competitor or a replacement for those. The carbon situation is so dire that we literally need all solutions possible, no single solution can attack the entirety of the problem. No single solution can address the 36 billion tons of CO2 we produce every year.

Renewables cannot do it alone. Switching to electric cars cannot do it alone. Converting carbon dioxide into valuable products cannot do it alone, and that's ok. These are all complementary solutions and they each have a role to play. They all have different ways in terms of the economy, our ecosystem and our lives in how they can play and plug in. So we think it's part of a suite of climate mitigation solutions and we hope to see it play that role.

Some see carbon capture technologies as a way of skirting the real issue, that they might create a kind of "get-out-of-jail free card" for polluters and we'd be better focusing resources on developing cleaner energy instead. What are your thoughts on this line of thinking?

It's funny, a lot of people in the CO2 business actually think that it's renewables that could really unlock this space. The focus here is not a competition for renewables, so there's two points I want to make.

One, to convert CO2 emissions into valuable products in a way that makes sense, you have to actually, overall, offset or reduce emissions. You cannot increase emissions – that seems obvious but you have to be careful about that. One way to do that is to get your energy from a low carbon source. So the rise of renewables is seen as a very positive development for this notion of deploying technology that actually recycles C02 emissions into materials of value.

The second point, however, is quite different, and that is that when we talk about renewables, we're mostly talking about renewable electricity. That's wonderful, and even in a future where we replace all of our electricity generation, and even lets say all of our fuels so that all the cars are running on liquid fuels or electricity, and all the electricity in the world is sourced from wind, solar or renewable sources, we still have a huge amount of CO2 emissions to deal with. That alone doesn't solve our C02 problem.

I'm speaking about manufacturing, I'm speaking about the production of clothing, production of those electric cars, making steel, making glass and making cement. These are actually not very good use cases for renewables today, and so the future emissions problem, that's a medium-term and long-term hard core of emissions.

That's one of the reasons we think we need a lot of different approaches to try to get to a low carbon future, and CO2 conversion, I think, can be one of them. Renewables are certainly another one and shouldn't be overlooked by any means. So those are a couple of reasons why we don't see these two as competitors, but actually complementary.

What do you currently see as the main obstacles to effective carbon capture and conversion?

We have an initiative that focuses on these exact questions. It's called the circular carbon network and it's focused on trying to curate a network of private investors, venture funds and people from the private capital space to ask these exact questions. What is blocking investment? What is blocking deployment? What are the obstacles? We actually published a white paper on the topic in September last year during Climate Week, but I'll summarize a couple of the key findings.

One, there's a perception that the technologies are not real, and don't work. We are trying to bust that myth with the Carbon XPrize and actually demonstrate what works. It's not an ideas competition, it's a "can you actually build it and make it work?" competition.

Another is access to capital. These technologies tend to be capital intensive and take a long time to develop. You can't do it with $100,000 and five people working hard over a few weeks. It's the type of industrial technology that really needs a bit of runway to develop. It's not so much that there isn't money out there, but that the right investments and financing mechanisms need to be deployed to make this type of technology grow.

There's one other area that I'll mention, and that is uncertainty about the policy landscape. Frankly, there are differences of opinion about the extent to which this is a barrier, but certainly a carbon tax, or a carbon price, or lack of policy incentives in different jurisdictions, are sometimes perceived as a barrier. In some places, people are just blasting right through that, in others they are leveraging policies that exist. For instance, in Canada there is a carbon tax, in the US there is a carbon tax credit, called 45Q. These are new tools that are seen as positive developments to allow a runway for these technologies to develop.

Turning carbon into things is a process that involves a lot of different technologies, from methods of carbon capture itself to material science. What areas of science and technology do you see as being critical, and where will the main or most important innovations take place?

A couple of things. One, the actual range of technologies and range of materials being produced inside the competition is one of the big takeaways for us so far. It's a really amazing diversity of technologies and approaches. And that's what we want out of the competition, we want to showcase what is possible and observe people trying it through different lenses and from different angles.

The second point is, after observing that kind of diversity, a couple of themes emerge. One is that getting the chemistry right, and innovations in the actual chemistry of turning the CO2 molecules into another molecule, is really crucial, and that's where a lot of the innovation comes in. Specifically, being efficient in energy, being efficient in use of materials and finding catalysts – a technical word for a type of ingredient you might need in the process – that are actually regenerative and recyclable, so that you're not generating a bunch of material waste when you do this, that's where a lot of the competition lies.

And a couple of others I want to add, in addition to that hardcore chemistry part, are finding ways to make products that have other benefits. Beyond just being made of CO2 and reducing CO2 emissions, maybe they are more sustainable because they use less water, or are cheaper, or have better performance. And so they are innovations not so much on the CO2 conversion part, but in just making a better material overall that just happens to be made from CO2 instead of fossil fuels.

I'll give you an example. There's a team in our competition that make ready-mix concrete and cinder blocks. Their customers, first and foremost, want to hear that the concrete is stronger, and then they love that the concrete is greener and cheaper, and then, oh by the way, it also consumes CO2. For them, that's their business proposition. From a climate perspective we lead with the CO2, but for them, to get into the market, they are competing based on performance and price, and so that's just as important to them.

So we're talking potentially about products that are maybe not just more environmentally friendly, but have stronger selling points than competitors anyway?

Exactly. Another great example, just to flesh this out. From outside Carbon XPRize there's a company in Germany called Covestro, they made a foam, like the kind that's in my foam mattress, out of CO2. So they reduce CO2 emissions, but they actually reduce a lot of the use of acids and other chemicals in the production process, by using C02.

So basing the process on CO2 allowed them to reduce their reliance on other harmful chemicals and that's another environmental win that sort of has nothing to do with CO2, but that's a part of their process and that's what making that thing viable. So that's another helpful benefit. It shows how there's a broader sustainability question, not just a pure "can you make it out of C02" question.

We've seen scientists make progress in turning CO2 into everything from carbon nanofibers, to solid rocks to solar fuel. Is there an application for converted CO2 that has you particularly excited?

Yes! There is a handful of them, but I'll try and narrow it down. A really exciting one, and I'll try and convince you it is exciting, is concrete. Concrete might sound run-of-the-mill, regular and boring, but concrete is an exciting application because concrete is the material we use the most of on Earth. If we can get CO2 into concrete we can really have a dramatic impact. Literally the most common product that human beings make is concrete. So there's a lot of it.

Another one at the opposite end of the spectrum is carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes. That is a very exotic and sexy material, it is used in a few things today like high performance theoretical electronics and you can buy a bicycle, tennis racquet and sporting goods made of carbon fiber, but it could be a material that our buildings and homes and everyday devices are made of in the future, maybe even within our generation. So there's a lot of excitement about that material, period, and the idea that you can make it out of a waste product like CO2 is very attractive, so that gets a lot of attention.

And a third one I'll say is polymers, plastics. Plastics don't come to mind immediately when you're thinking about sustainability, but the idea of recycling a waste product into a product that again can be recycled, that's really at the core of a circular economy – the idea that we can recycle our waste products and reduce our CO2 footprint and environmental impact by doing so, that's a really exciting proposition.

So, lots of possibilities?

Yes, exactly. And it's so cool to see the different possibilities on display. They're all competing under the same rules and are going to be evaluated under the same conditions as we head into the finals.

When can we expect to see the winning technologies of the Carbon Xprize in action?

Well, you can see them in action by checking out a video we have online. We have a few video clips of teams in action, building in their labs, when we visited them over the past couple of months.

But I think what you're really asking is when will we see them in the finals. Teams are going to start moving into the test centers, where the finals will take place, starting this year and into next year. So over the next year to 18 months, all the way until when the prize concludes in 2020, teams are challenged with building a device and setting it on the ground and operating it, either in Calgary or in Wyoming, where our two test centers will live.

So it's all rolling along nicely?

Yes, it's really coming together, we're really excited that these test centers are opening. These are new facilities opening for the first time, we're about to announce who these 10 finalists are and we're really thrilled to see what they can do, and we'll be giving them our full support over the next couple of years.

I would like to just recontextualize what we're trying to do here. We're trying to use the incentive prize model to really have an impact in energy and climate. That means fostering technology breakthroughs, but it also means inspiring the public, the private sector, investors and the entrepreneur community.

To not just ask how can we take CO2 conversion to the next level, but the bigger question is what new thinking can we unlock to really attack this grand challenge. We need all of our creativity and best minds thinking about how to attack the climate challenge. The Carbon XPrize is one example, but it's really meant to offer some inspiration and some hope that solutions are possible, technology and innovation does have a role to play, this is a solvable problem and there are a lot of ways to get after it. That's the kind of legacy we're trying to leave.

For more information about the Carbon XPrize, you can check out our earlier coverage here, or visit the competition website below.

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