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How the oil sands and XPRIZE could reinvent carbon

Canada's oil sands have partnered with XPRIZE to inspire innovators to solve the carbon challenge.

You’ve heard of XPRIZE: they inspire entrepreneurs and innovators around the world using international competitions. They’ve engaged the world’s brightest minds to solve some tough global challenges: everything from sending robots to the moon to cleaning up the oceans. By pushing the limits of what’s thought possible, XPRIZE seeks to accelerate positive change.

Dan Wicklum, Ph.D., chief executive of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) says the Carbon XPRIZE is "an innovative approach that could potentially solve one of the world's most pressing environmental challenges while allowing us to meet the world's growing energy demands."

Now, they’ve set their sights on CO2 with a partnership with U.S. power company NRG and Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). Together, they are backing a US$20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE to find ways to lower emissions. The competition challenges innovators to use CO2 to create valuable products like building materials, alternative fuels and other items we use every day.

It’s a whole new way of thinking about a global challenge. Instead of seeing CO2 as an environmental liability, the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE sees it as an innovation opportunity—a chance to make the conversion of industrial CO2 emissions feasible around the world.

“It’s an innovative approach that could help potentially solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, while allowing us to meet the world’s growing energy demands,” says Dan Wicklum, chief executive of COSIA.

Dr. Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE senior director, energy & resources, notes "the diversity of technologies on display is an inspiring vision of the new carbon economy.

The competition started in 2015 with 47 teams from around the world working to develop breakthrough technologies to convert CO2 into valuable products. This April, an XPRIZE panel of world-leading chemical, biomolecular and energy experts selected 10 teams from five countries to advance to the finals.

“These teams are showing us amazing examples of carbon conversion and literally reimagining carbon. The diversity of technologies on display is an inspiring vision of a new carbon economy,” said Dr. Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE senior director of Energy and Resources and prize lead.

The finalists offer some remarkable ideas for converting CO2 into valuable products including:

Carbon Upcycling Technologies
A Calgary-based company using CO2 emissions to cultivate nanoparticles that enhance materials like concrete, plastic and batteries.

Newlight
A California-based company using microorganisms to convert CO2 into bioplastics—plastics that can be transformed into products we use every day.

Breathe
A company based out of India that has developed a process to convert CO2 into a fuel source: methanol.

The competition has reached an exciting phase, with the 10 finalists testing their innovations at large-scale industrial facilities in Canada and the United States to prove they can scale up their technologies for use in the real world. The winner will be the team that converts the most CO2 into products with the highest net value.

However, the real winner could be the rest of us. Success could lead to technologies that we’ll possibly see in factories and power plants around the world: with the potential to reduce CO2 emissions in a big way, leading to a lower-carbon future.

In this article, Context speaks with: