Researchers Trying to Turn Carbon Into Things They Can Sell

(Bloomberg) -- What if the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pumped out by the world’s power plants could be converted into something that’s more useful? Ten teams will split $5 million to test ways to do just that.

The researchers are developing systems that break down the greenhouse gases to make products ranging from building materials to plastics to chemical feedstocks. They were all named as finalists Monday in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPrize competition, during a session at the BNEF Future of Energy Summit in New York.

The goal is an economically viable system to convert emissions from power plants into commercial products. Capturing carbon dioxide from power plants has proven elusive to put into practice, largely because of the cost. In one notable flop, Southern Co. spent $7.5 billion building a “clean” coal plant before abandoning the effort last year. Turning the greenhouse gases into products people can buy could transform the industry, said Marcius Extavour, senior director for energy and resources impact architecture at XPrize Foundation.

“By showcasing what seems to be a radical technology, and hopefully some breakthroughs, we’re hoping to shine a spotlight on other innovative pathways to decarbonizing the power sector,” Extavour said in an interview before the finalists were announced. The XPrize Foundation is best known for organizing a competition to spur the privatization of space exploration, and the Carbon XPrize applies the same idea to environmental science.

Researchers Trying to Turn Carbon Into Things They Can Sell

The finalists all demonstrated their ideas on a small scale. In the next phase of the competition, they’ll set up shop at facilities alongside two operating coal and natural gas power plants and must expand production at least 10-fold. Two $7.5 million grand prizes will be awarded in 2020, one for the winner at the gas plant and the other for the winner at the coal site.

Four teams are working on ways to use carbon dioxide in concrete: CarbonCure Technologies Inc. of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; Carbon Upcycling UCLA, which is affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles; Montreal-based Carbicrete; and Carbon Capture Machine Ltd. of Aberdeen, Scotland.

“Human beings make a lot of concrete,” Extavour said. “Being able to make one of our most high-quantity products out of waste is attractive.”

Another four teams are making fuel, plastics or chemical feedstocks: India-based Breathe; C4X of Suzhou, China; CERT, from the University of Toronto; and Huntington Beach, California-based Newlight Technologies.

Two teams are making carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles, which are used in a broad range of products: C2CNT of Ashburn, Virginia, and Carbon Upcycling Technologies of Calgary.

“The idea of making a really high-performance material that has a huge upside for the 21st Century, out of maybe the biggest waste product of the 21st Century, is very cool,” Extavour said.

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