XPRIZE—the organization behind grand technology challenges such as the race to space won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne and current contests to land a Lunar rover and a Star Trek-style medical tricorder—unveiled a competition today that tackles a more mundane yet critical challenge: transforming carbon dioxide emissions from power plants into saleable products to help slow or reverse climate change. The competition's $20 million kitty has been raised from major carbon emitters: a coalition of oil and gas producers producing high-carbon oil from Alberta’s oilsands, and New Jersey-based electric utility NRG Energy.
Entrants will have until early 2020 to develop CO2 conversion technologies on two tracks: one targeting flue gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, and a second targeting the less concentrated emissions from natural gas-fired generators. The technologies that convert the most CO2 into products with the highest net value will win.
XPRIZE Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis said in a statement that the Carbon XPRIZE confronts the fact that our "age of unprecedented technological progress and prosperity” is powered primarily by fossil fuels. According to the statement, competing technologies could incorporate CO2 into such products as chemicals, cement and other building products, and transportation fuels.
Some carbon dioxide is already being repurposed today, but the price is high. A few oil producers are using post-industrial CO2 as a working fluid to loosen up aging oil reservoirs, simultaneously boosting the flow of oil to the surface and storing the fossil carbon underground. Researchers in China are exploring a twist on such ‘enhanced oil recovery’ to produce water, proposing to sequester CO2 captured from a coal-fired power plant in Tianjin while yielding an estimated 1.4 million cubic meters of deep water annually.
Of course, burning the extra oil produced via enhanced oil recovery releases more fossil CO2, clawing back some of the environmental benefit. And a supply of CO2 for such projects is hard to come by due to the high cost of equipping power plants for carbon capture and operating the equipment.
The Carbon XPRIZE seeks to catalyze carbon capture by turning CO2 molecules into products with higher added value. Scientists are exploring the possibilities already. Austrian researchers have, for example, demonstrated the use of enzymes and electricity to convert CO2 into alcohol-based fuels. And last year a demonstration plant in San Antonio began capturing CO2 from a cement plant and converting it into minerals and chemicals, including sodium carbonate, hydrochloric acid and bleach.
Skyonic’s San Antonio plant converts CO2 to minerals and chemicalsPhoto: Skyonic
Unfortunately the environmental benefits of synthesizing CO2 into something new remain dubious because capturing CO2 and chemically refashioning it requires considerable energy. In the case of the alcohol fuels, the energy requirements of the chemical processing completely negate the climate protection achieved by recycling CO2.
The ultimate irony of the Carbon XPRIZE is that it could turn out winners that still do not pencil out economically or environmentally. Meanwhile, the oil producers backing it via Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a Calgary-based trade group, are sitting on advanced production technology that promises to profitably slash their emissions at the source.
Oilsands emissions are rising as the industry shifts from open-pit mines that scrape Alberta’s tarry bitumen off the surface to operations that attack deeper deposits by drilling wells and injecting steam underground to melt the bitumen and pump it to the surface. But options that could shrink that footprint exist.
Calgary-based oilsands process developer N-Solv has proven the effectiveness of a low-energy process at a 250 to 300 barrel-per-day demonstration site near Fort McMurray that uses butane to dissolve bitumen instead of steam. This month, the company celebrated production of its 60,000th barrel of heavy oil since starting the demonstration plant in 2014, and announced it had won its own prize—a place among 2015 honorees for Canada's Clean50 Awards.
Eliminating steam production from natural gas makes the overall process cheaper while cutting carbon emissions per barrel by as much as 80 percent. “We can be as clean or cleaner than conventional oil,” says John Nenniger, N-Solv’s founder and chief technology officer.
Oilsands operators have conducted their own experiments with solvent-based production over the past five years, but implementation is lagging. Nenniger says oilsands producers neglected the technology when oil prices were high because they could make a profit with the older and dirtier steam technology. Weak Canadian climate policies meant they were not obligated to take a risk on the cleaner approach. And now that oil prices are low and oilsands projects are losing money, capital for new operations is scarce.
”It’s so frustrating from my perspective because every other industry is so aggressively competing to get to the bottom of the supply cost curve,” says Nenniger. “The oilsands industry says stuff, but they don’t actually do anything. Investment has been 10 to 20 fold below what it should have been.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled his country out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, arguing that complying with the treaty's prescribed greenhouse gas reductions would hurt Canada's energy-intensive economies. Change may be coming, however. Harper, who hails from Alberta and has strong support from the oil and gas sector, finds himself in a tight race for re-election in October.
Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party, a former Quebec environment minister who is leading in nationwide polls, unveiled plans this weekend for a cap and trade program to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050—the same goals established by climate policy leaders such as the European Union and California. As of 2013, Canada's emissions were 18 percent above 1990 levels.
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.