Aug 10 2021

Article cover image

By Marcius Extavour, XPRIZE Vice President of Energy & Climate

Now that the $100M XPRIZE Carbon Removal funded by the Musk Foundation is up and running, we wanted to invite you into the process that shaped and formed this prize. Behind the $100M headline and the basic rules have been endless debates, conversations, research, and balancing priorities and incentives. This is the first in a short series of blog posts where we’ll dig deeper into the thinking that informed the design of XPRIZE Carbon Removal. Everyone familiar with the field of CO2 removal (“CDR”) will recognize many of the themes behind these design considerations. Whether you have been steeped in CDR or are new to the topic, these blogs are an invitation to join the conversation, spread the word, and even join the competition.

Getting from a concept to a prize launch 

CO2 removal is a topic that was never far from XPRIZE day to day work as we managed the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE from 2015 to 2021. That competition focused on converting post-combustion CO2 from point sources like power plants into valuable CO2-based materials. Most of those processes reduce CO2 emissions through avoided emissions -- providing alternative material production methods that are less CO2 intensive than the status quo. As the climate science became increasingly clear that avoided emissions would not be enough -- that we would need to remove a significant amount of already-emitted CO2 from the air and ocean -- we started to think about how to build on the success of the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE to go even further in supporting greenhouse gas management. Of course, CO2 is not the only important greenhouse gas. Water vapor is more abundant, and methane creates more global warming potential. But the combination of the huge amount of CO2 generated by our modern civilization; that CO2 is stable and will last for centuries or longer in the air and oceans; and the huge number of CO2 sources, all combine to make CO2 removal a strong target for climate action, in parallel with the urgent need to reduce new CO2 emissions as soon as possible. 

We got our start in designing a CDR prize in 2018. We raised the seed capital to fund the design at XPRIZE’s annual Visioneering event, in which we gather our donor community to engage with us about which topics we should pursue next (thank you Chuck Brady for anchoring that effort!). “CO2 extraction” was a concept that gained a lot of momentum at the event, and ultimately won the ideas competition that weekend. 

We held the first prize design workshop in San Francisco in March 2019, where we gathered 50 CDR experts, prize designers, investors, and innovators. These folks participated in prize design and ideation exercises and came up with prize concepts of their own. We used those as a starting point, and explored each one against leading research and using extensive consultation with experts in various aspects of CDR, climate change, and carbon management. After several iterations on the prize design through 2019 and 2020, we connected with the Musk Foundation team and incorporated their design notes, and went through a final round of expert review. We announced the prize in February, launched it in April, and published the detailed guidelines for public comment in May. 

Prize design 101

Prize design is like game design. The goal is to develop a set of incentives, and rules that govern those incentives, in order to drive innovation in a particular direction and achieve the specific goals of the prize. The process is part art and part science. The technical metrics must be informed by the best available science and engineering. At the same time, the competition rules, structure, and timeline are ultimately about driving human behavior, so we need to have a sense of how innovators will respond and act on those competition rules and incentives. 

XPRIZE Carbon Removal will challenge innovators to demonstrate the viability of durable, low-cost, scalable, and sustainable CDR solutions. The specific goals of the prize are to:

  1. Increase the global supply of cost-effective, durable CDR solutions
  2. Prove the scientific / technical viability of a diversity of high-quality CDR solutions that can be deployed and maintained sustainably, including both existing and new solutions
  3. Accelerate the scaling and equitable deployment of proven CDR solutions
  4. Inspire the next generation of talent and innovators in CDR

The prize evaluation criteria ask that each team demonstrate the following: 

  • A working, viable CDR solution operating at minimum scale of 1000 tonnes/year
  • Net negative CO2 removal that delivers durable CO2 removal for at least 100 years
  • Ability to be scaled sustainably to the gigatonne per year level over time, and to achieve low cost, inclusive of any revenues or ancillary benefits that a particular CDR solution may offer

The ultimate impact goal is to use XPRIZE Carbon Removal will challenge innovators to demonstrate the viability of durable, low-cost, scalable, and sustainable carbon removal solutions.  Humanity needs a portfolio of solutions that can reach a combined installed capacity of 2.5 billion tonnes (gigatonnes) of CO2 removal per year by 2030 in order to be on track to meet the IPCC goal of at least 10 gigatonnes per year by 2050. The competition is designed to help put humanity on track to meet this goal.

Building on existing work, including lessons from experience 

In designing XPRIZE Carbon Removal we were fortunate to have the foundation of a prize in a very complimentary topic with so much intellectual and professional overlap, the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. Given the wide range of innovation topics in which XPRIZE has worked throughout our history, this presented a fairly unusual opportunity, but we took full advantage. Not only did we have a lot of in-house expertise and experience in the field, we had the benefit of building on what worked and avoiding design elements that did not work well in this design, in addition to drawing on the experiences of many other past and present prizes. This led directly to a few other interesting design features in this prize:

More capital to competitors sooner. Of the $100M in available prizes purses, $20M will be disbursed within the first year of competition, including $5M to student-led proposals this year. This prize is designed to get more capital into the hands of innovators in the CDR world early, both to help advance solutions directly, and to attract follow-on, matching, or other leveraged funding into the space.

No central test sites. Because of the wide range of solutions that can offer scalable CDR, no one or two central test sites could hope to serve the needs of all or even most teams. For this reason, we leave the selection of a demonstration location completely up to the teams. We hope this will also increase participation globally. That said, we are interested to partner with other groups who may be in a position to host or organize regional or solution-specific demonstrations clusters at existing facilities, in their home city or country, for the benefit of the competing teams. If this is you, we’d love to hear from you.

Open enrollment. Unlike most past competitions, in which all teams need to register by a deadline, and the judges narrow the field down over time to an eventual winner, XPRIZE Carbon Removal will remain open to interested teams right up to the final year. Each phase still has a deadline for registration, but missing a deadline of choosing not to participate in one phase will have no impact on a teams’ ability to compete in the next phase, provided a team can meet the requirements of the prize. For example,  ( a team can still enter the competition as late as the Finalist Site Visit Application Submission Deadline on February 1, 2024 and be eligible to win the $50M Grand Prize, or one of the runners up Prizes.

In the next blogs, we will explore the thinking behind some of the design choices in this prize, including why a huge range of CDR solutions are in scope; why durability matters in CDR and how we measure that in the prize; why we require a relabie, fully functioning demonstration of a aCDR solution to win the prize; and why and how it is important to evaluate cost of CDR solutions.

To register, click here. To read the guidelines, click here. Student proposals are due by Oct. 1, 2021, and Milestone submissions are due by Feb. 1, 2022. The registration deadline for the Milestone Awards is Dec. 1, 2022.