The Carbon XPRIZE winners have concrete climate change solutions

NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE winners CarbonCure and CarbonBuilt each claim US$7.5 million with groundbreaking technologies to turn CO2 emissions into cement.

After five years of big ideas, hard work, amazing discoveries and the challenges presented by working through a global pandemic, the two winners of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE were announced April 19: CarbonCure, based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia captured the US$7.5 million prize in the natural gas track, and CarbonBuilt from Los Angeles, California won the US$7.5 million prize in the coal track.

The $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition was designed to spur development of technologies to recycle carbon emissions into valuable products. The initiative was run as a joint industry project through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), U.S.-based NRG Energy, and the XPRIZE Foundation.

The competition launched in September 2015, bringing together innovators from around the world to develop technologies that take CO2 emissions from natural gas and coal combustion and convert them into usable products. From an initial 47 teams, the field narrowed to 27 semi-finalists, and 10 finalists – five each in Calgary and Wyoming. Each finalist’s conversion technologies were tested in Calgary at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC) for the natural gas track, and at a facility in Wyoming for the coal research track.

CarbonCure makes stronger, greener concrete. In the competition, this company provided the best, most comprehensive demonstration of a natural product, technology, and market advantages. This technology is already reducing CO2 and water intensity in concrete, with the technology now in market and installed at over 150 facilities worldwide.

CarbonCure president and team leader Jennifer Wagner said, “Climate change can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Team CarbonCure and our fellow Carbon XPRIZE contenders demonstrated that the challenge is surmountable and that we have the solutions available today to create meaningful change.”

Wagner added, “The prize money will be used to accelerate our path to our mission of reducing 500 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually by 2030. We’re also committing to build an XPRIZE legacy by investing a portion of the prize funds into social equity initiatives.”

CarbonBuilt also worked on improving concrete. Their process consumes raw flue gas, which is the most direct source of carbon emissions from coal combustion. CarbonBuilt is preparing their process for commercialization.

Beyond the grand prize winners, honourable mentions were given to Carbon Upcycling Technologies-NLT based in Calgary, and Carbon Corp from Ashburn, Virginia.

A lasting legacy

Creating valuable uses for industrial and power sector emissions could positively transform the way CO2 emissions are addressed. Carbon has inherent value and potential products that can be made from recycled CO2 cross a variety of energy applications, industrial processes and consumer products. Rather than seeking to eliminate emissions, the XPRIZE challenged researchers to re-imagine potential benefits from carbon instead of seeing it as a liability.

The XPRIZE demonstrates converting CO2 into everyday products can be a game-changing pathway within broader decarbonization efforts. This ground-breaking initiative enabled development of technologies that can convert CO2 emissions into products like environmentally friendly concrete, plastics and even vodka. Going forward, energy producers, utilities and other industries will have access to multiple technological solutions that could help reduce emissions through CO2 conversion and lower the cost of deploying cleaner energy globally.

Another legacy of the competition is the ACCTC, a unique facility constructed at the natural gas-fired Shepard Generating Station in Calgary. With the Carbon XPRIZE competition now completed, the ACCTC is opening its doors to other innovators around the world looking to test carbon conversion technologies at an industrial scale. It’s a key step in enabling great ideas to take the final step to commercialization and success.

A five-year journey to success

Competitors were nothing if not imaginative in their approach to converting carbon to useable products. Among the finalists were Brooklyn-based Air Company, which invented a proprietary technology using solar power to capture excess carbon from the air and transform it into high-quality vodka; Team CERT, a Toronto-based group that used catalysts to turn CO2 emissions from a power plant into all-purpose building-block chemicals like ethylene, which in turn is used to create everything from tires and textiles to food wrap and shampoo; and Carbon Upcycling Technologies, which combined CO2 emissions with waste materials to create valuable products like concrete and plastic.

The pandemic presented another set of challenges to researchers, who had to invent not only carbon conversion technologies but also had to figure out how to work through lockdowns and other restrictions.

In addition to supporting development of ground-breaking technologies, the competition successfully changed how we think about carbon. Marcius Extavour, Executive Director of Prize Operations, Energy and Resources at the XPRIZE Foundation, said, “ We drove breakthroughs for converting carbon dioxide emissions into useful materials but XPRIZE was also an exercise in building an innovation community, accelerating that community, supporting what others are doing and highlighting carbon conversion as a viable approach to reducing emissions.”