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Reimagining Carbon: The Carbon XPRIZE

Q&A with COSIA's Dan Wicklum one how the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE could be a gamechanger

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Dan Wicklum
    Dan Wicklum Chief Executive, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance

In September 2015, Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) helped launch the latest XPRIZE contest for innovation, in collaboration with the XPRIZE Foundation and NRG Energy, a U.S. energy utility company. The US$20-million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition challenges teams from around the world—innovators in universities, government and the private sector— to come up with innovative approaches to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels into useful products. Context spoke to COSIA chief executive Dr. Dan Wicklum to learn more about COSIA’s XPRIZE collaboration.

Dan Wicklum is chief executive of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and a firm believer in the power of collaborative innovation.

Q: Why did COSIA partner with XPRIZE?

A: The XPRIZE Foundation has a track record of success in competition-based prizes. Also, both COSIA and XPRIZE are organizations focused on collaboration and innovation. So it was a natural step for the two organizations to work together.

Q: How did the partnership come about?

A: The idea started about three years ago during a workshop in Alberta on climate change. From there, a coalition of companies from COSIA approached XPRIZE and started to work directly with the foundation. This effort culminated in our recent announcement to launch the competition.

Q: How does this competition build on the work of COSIA?

A: As an alliance of oil sands producers, COSIA’s work is focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands. Our members capture, develop and share the most innovative approaches and best thinking to improve their environmental performance. Right now we have an active portfolio of 219 projects at a cost of about $450 million, with many of these specifically targeted on reducing GHG emissions. Some projects are focused on increasing energy efficiency, others on redesigning bitumen extraction, others on applying emerging technologies like fuel cells, while others are advancing longer term breakthroughs like carbon capture and storage.

Q: So, why set a challenge for “reimagining carbon,” rather than reducing emissions?

A: About 30 per cent of GHG emissions inherent in each barrel of oil come from production. COSIA members understand that, and they’re constantly working hard to reduce GHG emissions from production.

"As a scientist, I know from experience that when you issue a challenge and you encourage smart, motivated, creative people from a diversity of backgrounds and competencies to work on the challenge, great things will happen."

By sponsoring the Carbon XPRIZE, they’re building on this effort and expanding the solutions base. It’s designed to take a different but complementary tack— to not just decrease emissions but to completely reimagine carbon. With the Carbon XPRIZE, we’re hoping to encourage the development of breakthrough technologies that can convert CO2 into valuable products — for example, building materials, industrial and consumer chemicals, low-carbon transportation fuels, or possibly new products altogether.

Q: Can COSIA members participate in the new XPRIZE?

A: With the type of money involved, $20 million for the competition, strong governance and adjudication are important. So COSIA member companies cannot participate in the Carbon XPRIZE. The XPRIZE Foundation is the adjudicating organization and will appoint a judging panel to evaluate the various technologies and approaches developed by teams during the competition.

Q: In addition to XPRIZE, is COSIA looking for other partnerships?

A: We’re already doing that through our Associate Member program. In addition to our 13 COSIA members, we’ve signed agreements with 38 other organizations, including governments, universities and corporations, and we are working on projects with these partners. Within COSIA, we realize we don’t have a monopoly on innovation, so we’re continually reaching out to innovators, using specific projects like the XPRIZE or through our Associate Member program.

Q: Finally, now that the new XPRIZE competition has been launched, are you excited to see what results?

A: Absolutely. As a scientist, I know from experience that when you issue a challenge and you encourage smart, motivated, creative people from a diversity of backgrounds and competencies to work on the challenge, great things will happen.

With our commitment to the Carbon XPRIZE, COSIA’s member companies have taken the next step in finding a solution. We know, as does the XPRIZE Foundation and our co-sponsor NRG Energy, that the next great innovation can come from anyone, anywhere.