PODCAST: The Carbon XPRIZE changes how we think about CO2

What if you could turn man-made CO2 from something that causes global warming into useful products like concrete, bioplastics or vodka?


What if you could turn man-made CO2 from something that causes global warming into useful products like concrete, bioplastics or vodka? 

Marcius Extavour, Executive Director of Prize Operations, Energy & Resources at XPRIZE chats with Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson about the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE: an international competition supported by power company NRG and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance. With the Carbon XPRIZE entering its final year, innovators from around the world are working feverishly on breakthroughs that could transform how we think about CO2, and help usher in a low-carbon, energy abundant future.

Full transcript of podcast 

Tracy: Hello everybody and welcome to Energy Examined, a podcast exploring all kinds of topics affecting the oil and natural gas industries. Thanks for tuning in. I am Tracy Larsson, your host for this edition of Energy Examined. Today we’re going to learn about the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, what it’s all about and who’s involved. And today we have Marcius Extavour joining us. He is the energy and climate lead for XPRIZE. Marcius, thanks for joining us.

Marcius: Hey, it’s great to be here. How are you doing?

Tracy: Good. Thanks! So, let’s get right into it. Tell us: what is the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE?

Marcius: The NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is a competition. It’s an innovation competition. I’ll give you maybe what the details are of how it actually works, but maybe I’ll start with the point. It’s an exercise in trying to change the way we think about CO2 emissions and specifically, see if we can drive some breakthroughs converting carbon dioxide emissions into useful materials. So the way this basically works is, we put out a call to innovators around the world about four years ago now to say, ‘anyone that can convert CO2 emissions into a useful material, there’s a prize,’ meaning there’s steps you can go through and certain technical metrics you have to hit and if you hit it, there’s a $20 million prize on the line.

Tracy: That’s a big prize.

Marcius: Huge. So, we’re in the final stages of that now. It’s a competition. It’s a race. But really, it’s an exercise in trying to build innovation community, accelerate the community, support what others are doing and really highlight the issue among the broader public.

Tracy: How did you get involved?

Marcius: How I got personally involved, I guess, was, I’ve been working in energy for some time, especially on the innovation side. I come from science and engineering as my background, so that means I’m a nerd. That means I’m interested in technology, but I’m the type of nerd that’s interested in using technology to have broader impact, especially social impact. For me, those two things kind-of go naturally together. And somehow, I just found myself in energy just out of interest. So, the combination of wanting to have social impact, broader societal impact, working in energy, especially the technology side. And those two things, an intersection point there is climate and climate change and I came across XPRIZE as an organization. They were moving into this area, the fit was good, and I jumped on board.

Tracy: You said four years ago this started, so it’s been a bit of a journey and it’s now in the final stretch. How did you get to the set of finalists that are currently still in this competition?

Marcius: It has been a journey for sure. We launched in 2015. I remember it. It was in New York City. September 30th I think. We had a big launch event. ‘Guess what everybody, we’re launching this prize.’ The call’s out. We can put out the Bat Signal. Who wants to participate? Who’s in? Forty-seven different groups around the world threw their hat in. We have an independent panel of judges, so I’m getting into how the competition works now. And they look at, first the proposals that these organizations sent in and they picked the best 28 of those, this is in 2016 now. Those 28 were then challenged to go out and actually demonstrate something. We’re moving off the proposals, you now have to build something that works. And you have about a year to do it. So after about a year, we sent evaluation crews into the field to check on all these semi-finalists. The judges looked at the auditor’s reports and what the teams had actually accomplished and picked 10 finalists. So, it was really a journey of, first of all, people putting their hand up saying ‘I want to do this,’ making a proposal, showing us something real, and then we picked our 10 finalists in April 2018.

Tracy: Can you tell us a bit about some of the finalists? I was checking out the website and it’s diverse technologies and some of them are really cool.

Marcius: Of course! I mean, look, if you’re hearing this and you’re thinking ‘what does it mean to convert CO2 emissions into a material?’

Tracy: Yeah, because what does that mean, right?

Marcius: You’re asking exactly the right question. It sounds a little nuts. And you should be asking yourself, ‘what are you talking about’? It is a little bit like magic. We’re talking about taking a clear, colourless gas that can be chemically transformed into stuff that we see around us every day. I’m talking about concrete. I’m talking about polymers, fuels, industrial chemicals. You could make food out of it. You can make carbon nanotubes, which are the basis of carbon fiber. A lot of different products can be made out of CO2. So, we see that diversity reflected in the competition as well. We have teams from, I think, five different countries now. And they are making concrete. They are making cement replacements that go into concrete. They’re making biodegradable plastics. They’re making carbon nanotubes. We’ve had teams in the past making proteins. There are teams that are pursuing fuels, industrial chemicals like methanol. The point of the exercise is, if you make these materials out of CO2, first of all, you consume some CO2 and that can help reduce emissions, but even just making them out of CO2, by that process, this new material can have a lower carbon footprint than an incumbent material, for instance, concrete.

Tracy: Okay. It caught my interest that you said teams were making proteins. What proteins? For what purpose would that be, coming from CO2?

Marcius: Sure, I can get you a list of the finalists or you can check out our website, but we had a company that is not in the finals, but they’re still doing great stuff. They make – you can make an amino acid out of CO2. Amino acids are like the LEGO bricks of proteins. From amino acids, you can make proteins, you can make the types of proteins that humans eat, you can make the types of proteins that plants produce or that animals like to eat. So, this company started out by trying to make a palm oil replacement. Palm oil is a common cooking oil around the world, even though we don’t use it so much here in Canada. There are a lot of sustainability challenges with that. What if they could replace some of that palm oil with a CO2-based palm oil? From there, they moved into animal feeds, the kind of thing you feed to fish or to livestock, that’s also protein, often it’s soy-based today or other proteins, but maybe you could make it out of CO2. And it actually just spun out a food company, meaning proteins for humans, proteins for people, so all kinds of stuff. It’s pretty wild.

Tracy: Yeah, it is. It really is! Let’s talk a little bit about what it could mean for the future of energy. If we’re looking at fighting climate change, there’s a lot of talk that we really need to get off hydrocarbons altogether. But, if we can start doing some of these things and using these technologies in the ways that you’re talking about, then that could really change the way the future looks.

Marcius: What we’re really trying to do with the competition, but also everyone else working on different climate solutions, but CO2 utilization in particular – sometimes it’s called carbon tech – what carbon tech can do is yes, it can eat up some of our post-combustion emissions. You can go to a point source of emissions and absorb some of those emissions and turn them into something productive. You can even remove carbon dioxide from the air or oceans where it’s building up and driving climate change and then literally recycle it into a useful material. But I think another thing that it does – we talked about the way it seems a little bit like magic – it challenges your mind and changes the paradigm about what is possible with emissions reductions. It’s kind of nuts to think that a gas that we are used to ignoring and now we consider a liability, could also be an asset. So that’s a really interesting mind shift. I think on a really practical level, we know that carbon tech – making stuff out of CO2 – is a really important pathway for the future, but it definitely cannot solve climate change. There’s just a mismatch in scale. We make so much volume of CO2 emissions every year, so much mass, I guess, that we just cannot convert all of it into materials. However, converting it to materials is a promising path in addition to a lot of others, I think, can be promising.

Tracy: Okay. So, there are other XPRIZEs underway in different areas. And when I was looking at the website, the one thing that kind of struck me was the mission of XPRIZE and it’s one word: abundance. Can you talk a bit about that?

Marcius: Sure. Abundance is a word that our founder really loves –Peter Diamandis—and he’s kind-of carved out a philosophy that really guides the organization in a lot of ways. I think abundance to me means that it is possible to create the future that we want. We don’t live in a world of scarcity, meaning we don’t have to accept sometimes false choices between this way or that way. Sometimes we can actually, if we are creative enough, and ingenious enough, and work together, actually achieve our goals. So, for instance, when we think about climate, often solving climate change is pitted against economic growth. We can either grow our economies or we can address climate. I think an abundance mindset says that’s a false choice. It is possible to sustainably grow our economy equitably, sustainable from a climate perspective and sustainable from a business and social perspective. That is possible – not easy, not snap your fingers and it happens, but it is possible. And I think what underpins XPRIZE is the belief that we are optimistic that that is possible and we go about trying to inspire others to make it happen, not just by talking about it, but by challenging people to achieve specific and measurable technical goals. And, if those hardcore goals can be achieved, we can then start to connect the dots to a future, and so, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Tracy: Which is the beauty of XPRIZE, to give people a tangible – they’re going for something at the end of it, which I think it’s inspiring that there’s this prize at the end of it for people.

Marcius: I hope so. I mean, look, it’s easy to talk about a $20 million prize. It’s a great sound bite. It’s a great thing to get people’s attention. I think the competition format is pretty interesting. Not everybody likes competition, but if you think about it as friendly competition and everyone trying to do their best and really push each other, I think it can bring out the best in a lot of innovators. And one of the things I really like about the prize model is the ability to specify the targets and say, ‘if you can do these three things that will mean something and we’d like to reward you, and not just reward you quietly, but shine a spotlight on what you’re doing and hopefully allow you to inspire others.’ And when I say ‘you,’ I mean the people who are participating in the prize, the competitors.

Tracy: So, what is the final phase here now? You’ve got your finalists and then – what do they have to go through now to get to the end?

Marcius: We’re right in it now. That’s actually why I’m here in Calgary. I’m about to go check out one of our testing sites.

Tracy: Right. You have a testing site right here.

Marcius: Right here in Calgary. It’s in southeast Calgary. It’s called Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre. So, we have five of the ten companies that are in the finals of this competition. Their challenge is to set up shop at that location and demonstrate their technologies. So, what does set up shop mean? We talked about different technologies that teams are pursuing and what they might mean. To actually compete in and win in this competition, you actually have to do it. You have to build a small industrial pilot that actually works and is at this testing site the ACCTC, which itself is fed by the emissions of a natural gas plant. So, the Shepard Energy Centre here in Calgary, which is powering a big part of the city, it’s got two big towers. Well, CO2 goes up those towers. A small amount of that emission, which is mostly nitrogen, but there’s a bit of CO2 in there, about five per cent, is piped over to the ACCTC. And these teams, whether they’re making carbon fiber, concrete, bioplastics, methanol – whatever they’re making – they have got to set up shop, take the input that’s coming out of the power plant and turn it into something useful. They have until next summer to do this. So, the race is really on. It might sound like a long time from now, but it’s going to be here in the blink of an eye from their perspective. They’re all on a really accelerated timeline, but they’re all racing to basically build and ship their units to Calgary, set them up here, turn them on, run them and collect enough quality data to submit to the judges. I’ll just say too, that there’s a whole parallel competition. Everything I just described is happening in parallel down in Wyoming in the United States in a town called Gillette. Similar set-up. Similar facility. It’s called Integrated Test Center down there. And that one is fed by the emissions of a coal plant. There are a separate five companies that are tasked with showing up to that site, running, getting their data.

Tracy: What happens to that test site when XPRIZE is finished using it?

Marcius: Great question. So, the test sites are going to hang around. They’re going to stay and become home for future users. So, these are new facilities that were built really to host the XPRIZE. So, it’s a huge privilege for us to be able to use them. And they will continue on as user facilities, so both those facilities are looking for the next round of users, people that have a CO2 conversion, a carbon technology they want to test out and maybe a carbon capture technology they want to test out, where you’re just capturing the CO2 but not transforming it into something else. I think the idea here is, you know, why is this valuable? Well, if you do something like software, let’s say you’re doing software development, you can do all of your testing and development, you know, on a laptop or on a desktop. You can do it kind-of anywhere. If you are developing, let’s say cars, there are a lot of industrial testing sites for cars, prototyping, wind tunnels, etc. But for industrial greenhouse gas technologies, there are very few places to actually test. There’s a lot of great work at the lab scale, and there’s a lot of great commercial opportunity and industrial scale, but in the middle scale, when you’re kind-of getting from proof of concept up to something that can be deployed, there’s a real lack of space, so these test centres really try to fill that gap and say, ‘listen, this is a place where you can test not a full scale, but it’s not lab scale, it’s a small industrial scale, work out the bugs, start to make it look real.’ And the idea is to try to fill these up and make them innovation centres for years to come.

Tracy: Yeah, this is about building innovation.

Marcius: That’s exactly right. I really think of it as a piece of infrastructure in the innovation ecosystem, right? A prize is a part of it. Facilities are part of it. Public and private support are parts of it, innovators, these all have to flow together to make the thing go.

Tracy: How did you choose the two locations, then – Calgary and Wyoming?

Marcius: That’s another great question. It was really led by, I think, the types of sponsors and supporters we had for the competition, so the competition is sponsored by NRG and COSIA [Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance], hence the name. NRG has a lot of great relationships with the state of Wyoming, but it was really the state of Wyoming, frankly, the people, starting with the governor’s office that said, ‘we would like that innovation centre to be here and we want to work with XPRIZE to allow you to test in this location.’ So, Wyoming, working with NRG, but really Wyoming taking the leadership said, ‘we want to set up this facility here in Wyoming.’ In Calgary, I think it was really, the vision really came from COSIA members who said, ‘listen, we see an opportunity not just to support the prize, but to see some of this testing done in Calgary, where they have a strong presence, obviously, but also specifically to use a natural gas facility that’s relevant to their field operations. That was why Shepard Energy Centre was chosen as a great spot to host it. And I think that’s how we got to where we are.

Tracy: And the winner is announced in the summer?

Marcius: The winner’s going to be announced next fall.

Tracy: Next fall.

Marcius: So, we’ve got, the teams are racing to hit their summer deadline and we’re on track, after the teams submit their data and the judges convene. We lock them in a room. Just kidding, we love you judges. We’re gonna lock ‘em in a room for a couple of days. They will deliberate on all the results. The cool thing is that these are all independent volunteers who’ve been with us since the beginning of the competition. So that keeps us XPRIZE staff out of it, that keeps our sponsors out of it The independent judges decide which team best performed according to the rules and they’ll declare a winner and then we’ll organize an announcement of those winners and try to not just celebrate them, award the grand prizes, but also try to tell the story about what they’re up to, what the future holds and how the space has changed in the five years that this will have been running.

Tracy: And then what? I guess, what is the hope coming out of it all? Because it’s been a long time to work towards this and then there’s a prize and then it’s done. What next?

Marcius: What’s next is building and more. Let’s go back. What’s the point of the prize? The point of the prize is to try to catalyze an ecosystem, push breakthrough technologies, inspire others. We’re already seeing the ecosystem catalyzed. When we launched the prize in 2015, the number of crazy looks I got and, ‘you’re going to do what? What does that even mean? And why?’ Not that people were doubting. It just wasn’t a topic of conversation. The climate urgency was not there. Awareness in the industry was not there about what carbon tech could mean. Four years hence, not just because of XPRIZE, many other groups have really championed this area and moved it forward. We’ve seen more innovators, more private capital, interest from investors, public policy makers, even public facing brands and manufacturers are asking, ‘what are these CO2 materials and how do I get my hands on them? What does it mean for my carbon footprint?’ That type of thing. So, growing the ecosystem is something that’s ongoing. And we hope the prize will have been kind-of a springboard for that. XPRIZE is going to continue to support the ecosystem for a little while after the prize wraps. So that’s one answer. The second is, we’re really looking for that breakthrough technology from a winner, and so we will look forward to seeing how far they can go, not just the winner, but all the companies that have something worthwhile. One of the reasons we have 10 finalists is we want to see as many viable demonstrations as possible. We don’t want to just pick a winner and anoint them as the solution. We want to say, ‘they’ve won the competition, but there are many projects that can move forward hopefully to deployment and commercialization, some that are already actually out in the market. So, we’ll be pushing those and celebrating those and try to bring more attention to them. But we’re also, we’ve developed an initiative called Circular Carbon Network, I bring this up because it’s forward-looking. It’s explicitly designed to increase deal flow, meaning private capital, investment in companies in this space, whether they’re commercial, pre-commercial or what. And so that is something we launched off of the competition, but we intend for that to live on into the future. So, we’ve got a lot cooking and a couple of other things I’ll get to as well, but we’re really trying to, as I said, give a big boost to this space. We’ll re-direct our energy to other organizations who are going to take it forward. We’ll celebrate the winners and see how far we can push them to get to deployment.

Tracy: So, you’ve got the goals for the carbon XPRIZE and as we mentioned earlier, there are some other XPRIZEs going on. Is there anything that you would like to mention?

Marcius: Sure. I mean, a really cool thing for me working at XPRIZE and being interested in climate and energy and things like that is we’re really increasing our portfolio of prizes connected to those topics. Just two weeks ago, we launched a rainforest prize, which is essentially about cataloguing and valuing standing rainforests so that they can be developed more sustainably and also preserved. But, we’re working on prizes around corals, we’re working on prizes around water use, we’re working on prizes around tree planting, sustainable agriculture, these are things we’re developing and trying to get off the ground. Something that I’ve been personally involved in is something called carbon removal. This could be an amazing follow-on to the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The prize we’re doing now is about turning CO2 into useful stuff to try to bring down emissions. Carbon removal is about going to historic emissions that are already out in the air and saying, ‘we need to pull some of those down too or could we take some CO2 out of the oceans and start to roll back some of the ocean acidification?’ What’s interesting about this prize is it will be the largest single prize ever launched, not just by XPRIZE, but by any organization that we know about. We’re right now trying to build a sponsor coalition to get this thing off the ground. We’ve got a design in the bag, which we’re pretty excited about. And I’m personally excited about not just the scale and ambition of the prize, but being able to take a lot of the great energy we’ve developed through the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. I’m talking about the people we’ve met, the people that have gotten to know us, the stakeholders that we’ve developed and a lot of the entrepreneurs that we’ve met and direct some of that attention to a related topic, kind-of the other side of the coin. A real holy grail here would be if we could take CO2 emissions out of the air to help reduce atmospheric concentration of CO2 and do something productive with those emissions, whether it’s just sequestering them underground or turning them into stuff we can use, that’s a magical combination, that kind of unlocks the so-called circular carbon economy, where we’re actually recycling our CO2 in a beneficial way, so that’s a big vision. I love big visions, you could tell that. At a more practical level, we’ve designed this prize, we’re excited about it. We’re trying to see if we can get the sponsors together to launch it and we look forward to launching that hopefully next year.

Tracy: Sounds good. What has it meant for you to be involved in this whole process with the Carbon XPRIZE?

Marcius: You know, so interesting, it’s meant a lot to me personally. I was so excited to just have the opportunity – you know, it’s going to sound corny, but for me it’s so rare to be able to combine a few of the things that I just personally really love and care about. One, just nerding out on technology. I’ve always loved that since I was a kid. I’m never going to stop loving that – science, engineering, etc. I get to do that at XPRIZE. I get to work on a topic that I think is just cool from a technical perspective – energy, climate – but also something that I think has social impact. I was always attracted to energy because it’s a big, wicked problem. You can get really technical on it. It is political. It is social. It’s economic. It has so many different dimensions to it. So I continue to be interested in that and then to be able to use that platform to try to not just design better energy technology, but actually engage a broader community that’s interested in, not just innovation for the sake of doing something cool, but actually changing our societies for the better. And XPRIZE is an organization that tries to bring all those three things together. So, for me it’s a great fit. And it’s also just meant a lot to get to learn a whole new ecosystem, a lot of new people. I have great colleagues at XPRIZE who I really cherish. And look, it’s really fun to work on something that’s interesting, that’s exciting. It has its challenges for sure. It has its ups and downs, but for me it’s been a fantastic journey.

Tracy: Thank you so much for joining the podcast today. I really enjoyed this discussion. Good luck as this wraps up and you get to a winner. And I hope we get to talk to you again.

Marcius: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.