Long before there was an X Prize there was an Orteig Prize. According to Wikipedia, way back in 1919, a French hotel owner offered a prize of $25,000 for the first person to fly nonstop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. Charles Lindberg was the winner. There were eight other teams that competed. $25,000 was a lot of money back then, roughly equivalent to about $400,000 nowadays.

In 1996, Peter Diamandis, a Greek engineer, founder of several companies and writer of books, established the X Prize by putting up $10 million to whoever could put a three-passenger vehicle into space (100 meters) twice in two weeks or less. This competition is widely credited with “launching” the private sector into what was formally the exclusive domain of government efforts.

Since then, the X Prize Foundation has issued many other “challenges” on a wide variety of topics. In each case, they offered a prize to the first person or group who could attain a goal rather than the more typical approach of sending out a Request for Proposal, having a committee evaluate the responses, and then choosing to fund the one thought to offer the best chance of success. The whole idea is that competition, with a significant reward as a carrot, will create innovation.

Which brings us to the climate crisis: There has long been an interest in “carbon sequestration,” pulling carbon out of the air by growing trees. Other proposals are to inject CO2 into vast underground geologic formations where it would stay forever. There have been some glimmers of hope that sequestration could be a part of the solution to the climate crisis, but as yet there is little that has proved to be effective at scale or economical. One that everyone points to is planting trees. Unfortunately, we as a planet are deforesting faster than we are reforesting.

So, they issued a challenge and 47 teams responded with their ideas and their lab or test results to date. The foundation chose 10 for the competition and divided them into two groups. The first group is to focus on capturing and using emissions from a coal-fired power plant. The second group takes aim at emissions from a natural-gas plant.

So, there are five teams competing for $10 million prize if they can show their technology can capture and make useful, economical and scalable use of CO2 from coal-fired plants, with the other five teams competing for an additional $10 million for technologies related to gas-fired plants.

Interestingly, the X Prize for space flight attracted 26 teams from around the world that collectively spent an estimated $100 million chasing a $10 million prize. That’s pretty good leverage.

This approach to mitigating the climate crisis is not universally accepted as being technically feasible or economic. A big concern is that if, for example, a process were to be shown to successfully capture CO2 from the air and use it to make a better form of cement, there wouldn’t be demand for enough cement to make a significant dent in the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

In my view, every little bit helps, all hands on deck, and let’s try any and everything.

Meanwhile, back in the stagnant pond that is Congress, there was actually bipartisan support for a provision tucked into the massive tax bill they recently passed. Known as 45Q, it provides tax incentives of $50 per ton of carbon successfully sequestered and $35 per ton successfully utilized. There is no cap on these tax credits and you can take up to 12 years to claim them.

In the words of the Center for Carbon Removal, “45Q is poised to do for carbon capture (and utilization) what similar incentives did for wind and solar: unleash private-sector investments that catapult the technology to its maturity. Tax credits are the first step in that direction. The policy makes a stronger business case for development, which in turn will drive necessary innovation that make it easier and more attractive to take these technologies to scale. This scaling is vital. Scientists agree that cleaning up past emissions of carbon dioxide is essential to meeting climate targets.”

Sounds like a win-win, right? The X Prize stimulates competition, and government underwrites it with tax incentives. What could go wrong? I hope nothing.

One of the proposals for “carbon utilization” is mentioned in an article in Scientific American: using carbon to make “bioplastics” that Wikipedia defines as “plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats, corn starch or microbiota.”

This is a subject for a whole other column, and bioplastics may not be a silver bullet in terms of really and truly reducing plastic in the environment, but it may be one of those things that innovates and improves over time.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online  July 18, 2018
Printed July 18, 2018 edition page A8