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$25 million prize offered to capture carbon

February 9, 2007 By Olive Heffernan This article courtesy of Nature News.

Could you invent the best device for absorbing greenhouse gas?

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A multi-million dollar prize is on offer to anyone who can invent a device that will remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As one of the largest science prizes on offer, it is likely to attract huge interest globally in a bid to combat climate change.

The initiative was launched today by British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and former US Vice-President Al Gore in London.

The US$25 million 'Virgin Earth Challenge' Prize can be claimed for any invention that will remove "significant" amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — perhaps in the order of a billion tonnes a year. Current global emissions are more than 7 billion tonnes per year.

"The winner must be able to demonstrate a commercially viable design which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric, greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years without countervailing harmful effects," state the written rules of the competition. It must "contribute materially to the stability of the Earth's climate".

The winning entry could be anything from manufacturing bacteria to install in industrial emissions pipes, to creating a system that buries CO2 underground, or even inventing artificial trees to breathe in the gas from the air.

Fierce competition

A panel of noteworthy scientists and environmentalists will oversee the innovations. Among the panellists are NASA climate scientist James Hansen; inventor of the Gaia theory, James Lovelock; UK environmentalist and retired diplomat Crispin Tickell; and Australian conservationist and author Tim Flannery.

The competition is officially open for at least the next five years, during which the judges will meet annually to consider any submissions.

"We want to use it to encourage leadership and innovation," says Tickell. It is likely that many known technologies will be perfected and put forward for the prize, he says, but they hope it will also encourage the pursuit of new technologies.

One possibility to remove significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere is to capture it from the emissions from power plants and storing it beneath the seabed in gas, liquid or solid form, a process referred to as carbon capture and storage. Already a key area of research, this technique could be a likely contender for the prize in light of amendments to an international agreement governing the dumping of wastes at sea. Due to take effect on 10 February, the amendments will allow carbon dioxide to be stored permanently in structures under the seabed.

Proposals already abound to store CO2 in decommissioned oil and gas wells, or to transform it into stable liquid or frozen solid states for burial. One famous Norwegian project that began to bury its CO2 ten years ago has so far managed to squirrel away 10 million tonnes of the gas.

But storing it underground has raised concerns that, over time, the gas might leak back into the ocean and atmosphere.

Another possibility to bag Branson's prize is in efforts to suck CO2 directly from the air. 'Air capture' is in its infancy as a technology. Some proposed methods include using chemicals to absorb the gas —'artificial trees' would use an absorbent coating of something such as calcium hydroxide on multiple slats or 'leaves' that would suck up the CO2. This does, however, mean that the coating needs to be recycled and refreshed.

A team at the University of Calgary, Canada, has made a device in the lab that sprays sodium hydroxide into a large air-filled tube to remove the carbon. They envision towers standing more than a hundred metres tall and a hundred metres wide that could suck up the CO2. Current technologies, they say, could see carbon sucked from the air for about $200 to $500 per tonne1.

Part of the solution

Tickell calls the prize "a symbolic gesture". "We should not think that technology will be the only solution. We need to realise that this is a societal problem," he says.

"This is the beginning of a period of transition and we can't expect it to happen tomorrow. We need to start thinking differently as a society," says Tickell.

Reducing emissions will also be a key part to the lowering of greenhouse gas levels. Branson owns Virgin airlines, which is responsible for emitting thousands of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Branson has pledged to reduce these emissions, and to invest in climate change initiatives (see 'Virgin boss aims to save the planet').

The prize will be won sooner or later, Tickell says. He just hopes it won't take 60 years to be claimed, as did the infamous prize for a device to determine longitude at sea.


  1. Keith D.W., Ha-Duong M. & Stolaroff J.K. Climatic Change, 74. 17 - 45 (2006).


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