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: Algae farming and an ocean ‘antacid’ among top ideas to fight pollution in Elon Musk’s XPRIZE Earth Day contest

Elon Musk wants to back the technology that could save the world from itself, and he’s not talking about luxury electric vehicles.

On Earth Day, the latest round of winners in the Musk-backed competition, which focuses on the most promising ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by grabbing the gas right out of the air, were named.

Top entrants hailed from Iceland, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, with some targeting algae farming to replace the income earned by cutting down the rainforest, and another feeding the ocean an “antacid” that will allow it to suck up even more CO2 than it already does.

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and SpaceX rocket founder is fronting the $100 million carbon removal prize money for the multiyear contest that runs through a nonprofit called XPRIZE.

Musk has dominated business headlines in recent days after his unsolicited bid to take over Twitter
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He has expressed a desire to end world hunger and dared the U.N. to put up or shut up on that front. Musk seems more willing for now to put science-advancing money behind carbon capture.

Read: Tesla earnings ‘strong,’ but Wall Street ‘not willing to bet on’ latest robotaxi vehicle

The 15 early-phase “milestone round” winners announced Friday will get $1 million to scale up their work. The winners were picked from 1,133 registrants and 287 qualifying teams. An $80 million final prize will be awarded in three years. Until Dec. 1, 2023, anyone can still jump in the contest, which was announced a year ago.

“‘We still need more — more and deeper — emissions cuts, and more reliable, validated carbon removal solutions.’”

— Marcius Extavour of XPRIZE

Manmade carbon emissions, and the more-potent, but shorter-lasting methane emissions, are driving Earth’s temperature higher in a shorter amount of time than during past warm-ups. Global warming is raising the ocean to dangerous levels and is believed to be aggravating natural disasters, increasing their severity and frequency, and their cost in lives and economic loss.

“One year in, we already see the positive impact of the prize: hundreds of groups working on a wide range of promising carbon removal solutions. Not just ideas, but development and deployment plans, which is exactly what we need,” said Dr. Marcius Extavour, chief scientist and vice president of climate and environment at XPRIZE.

“We still need more — more and deeper — emissions cuts, and more reliable, validated carbon removal solutions,” he said.

The final winning team or teams will need to show they can remove 1,100 tons (1,000 metric tons) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, show how much it would cost to remove up to 1.1 million tons (1 million metric tons) per year and sketch out a path to removing billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year.

One winner of the $1 million investment prizes, called Planetary, uses proprietary technology to purify mine waste into a mild, nontoxic “antacid” which is then released into the ocean through existing, regulated methods, such as wastewater or storm water runoffs. When mixed with seawater, the antacid restores the ocean’s pH levels and accelerates the ocean’s natural process of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere. Restoring the ocean’s balance also helps to reverse the damage caused by ocean acidification resulting from climate change, the company said.

Another, Global Algae, won with a plan to cultivate algae to help restore rain forests, which capture huge volumes of carbon dioxide. Algae can be a more efficient and more profitable alternative to the cattle ranching and soy and palm oil crops currently on cleared rain forest land, Mark Hazlebeck, a principal of the family-owned company, told the Associated Press.

Yet another is working to trap atmospheric carbon dioxide in calcium carbonate crystals, similar to how the gas dissolved in the ocean helps form seashells and limestone.

The contest also shows that collaboration may be the key to the carbon-capture solution. For its two winning submissions, Iceland-based Carbfix partnered with U.S.-based companies Heirloom and Verdox.

“We launched Verdox two years ago on the promise of our novel electrochemical carbon capture system, which has been shown to reduce the energy penalty for capture by up to 70%,” said Verdox CEO Brian Baynes.

As for the Heirloom project, it bets on the ability of Earth itself to help with carbon capture. “Utilizing low-cost, Earth-abundant minerals as both sponge and storage for CO2 is key to making the economics work,” said Shashank Samala, co-founder and CEO at Heirloom.

XPRIZE announced $5 million in carbon removal project awards to university student teams last fall. And last year, two teams that showed they could profitably trap carbon dioxide from smokestacks in concrete split a $15 million XPRIZE award.

“‘Utilizing low-cost, Earth-abundant minerals as both sponge and storage for CO2 is key to making the economics work.’”

— Shashank Samala of Heirloom

The prize update comes as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued in recent months a trio of alarming reports, laying down ever-starker terms of the threat of rising global temperatures, including worsening heat, fires, hurricanes, floods and droughts.

In its March report, the IPCC said emissions in 2019 were about 12% higher than they were in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990.

The oil
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and gas industry is also expanding into carbon capture technology, which remains costly today but is seen allowing them to keep traditional lines of business even while pushing into solar, wind, hydrogen and more cleaner alternatives. The approach of capturing carbon to slowing global warming riles the staunchest environmental groups who worry it does nothing to slow demand for fossil fuels, and so won’t have enough impact.

Read: Biden’s climate envoy Kerry gives natural gas a 10-year expiration date

But the Musk team, and others, including the Biden administration, have said the world must attack climate change from all angles.

“Even if we stopped CO2 production, that’s probably still not enough,” XPRIZE founder and executive chairman Peter Diamandis said in a 2021 interview with Musk, posted on the XPRIZE website. “We do need mechanisms for extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere and the oceans that don’t exist right now.”

The risk of climate disaster could become “dire” if the trend of higher greenhouse gas concentrations continues alongside human population growth and industrialization, Musk said then. “It’s probably an unwise experiment to run,” Musk said. “Right now, we’ve only got one planet. Even if 0.1% chance of disaster, why run that risk? It’s crazy.”

The Associated Press contributed.

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